A pair of recent building proposals in Baltimore show why an overhaul of the city’s zoning code can only go so far in making the development process more efficient.
Transform Baltimore, the title given to the city’s first comprehensive revision of zoning codes since 1971, was approved 20 months ago with the intention “to simplify and streamline development review.” Proposals for projects in Fells Point and Clipper Mill reveal how the new code falls short of those goals.
Mayor Catherine Pugh, on Wednesday, said her administration is doing its best to encourage building while protecting residents. Recent flooding on Frederick Avenue exacerbated by nearby development, she said, serves as an example of what happens when the city isn’t thorough in examining building proposals.
“Our goal is to make development accessible to those who are doing what is necessary for the citizens of Baltimore and for the future of our city. But at the same time we want to make sure that we are protecting all citizens,” Pugh said.
Still, some developers remain frustrated by a process they feel hinders their ability to make a living and also to benefit Baltimore by adding to property tax revenues, attracting new residents, and creating jobs.
Chasen Construction & Development proposed building a five-story apartment building at 509 S. Washington St. permitted by the vacant lot’s zoning. Because the project is in a historic district it was subjected to an additional level of design review by Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.
That process started in late 2017 with conversations between architects and staff. The commission reviewed plans in July but tabled the matter because of community complaints. After roughly a month-long delay the commission reviewed the plans again on Tuesday and rejected the building’s design.
Neighbors, community groups, and elected officials who represent the area said they welcome development but testified against the building as designed. Commissioners overwhelmingly sided with residents and decided the building was not in keeping with the historic neighborhood’s character, even though the building is allowed under Transform Baltimore.
Following the meeting developer Brendan Chasen said he loves Baltimore. But the design review process, he argued, makes it too hard to put a proposal together because of uncertainty about what will and won’t be allowed.
“As developers we can’t put a pro forma together that says, ‘We know we can do this,’” Chasen said.
Plans for new building at Clipper Mill development ran into stiff community opposition earlier this year. At the root of the conflict between the developer and residents is a zoning overlay predating Transform Baltimore.
VS Clipper Mill LLC, the property’s owner, considered asking the Baltimore City Council to repeal a Planned Unit Development guiding development on the site. The firm, an affiliate of private equity firm ValStone Partners, wanted the site to revert to the Transit Oriented Development zoning that covers the area in the revamped code.
The development proposal included 336 apartments, light retail, and possibly office space. All are allowed by the zoning overlay. But the Transit Oriented Development zoning on the site, which is next to the Woodberry Light Rail station, replaced parking requirements with parking limits.
Caroline Paff, principal at VI Development, the consultant who leads master planning and entitlement on the project, previously argued that the Planning Department’s goal for Transform Baltimore was to bring underlying zoning in line with the city’s multiple Planned Unit Developments.
By bringing zoning overlays in line, she wrote in an email sent earlier this month, it “relieves communities, City agencies and developers of the costly, time-consuming and cumbersome PUD process.”
Eventually the owner decided against formally seeking the repeal of the zoning overlay, which would’ve required the support of the neighborhood’s city council representative.
At a meeting with residents on Aug. 6 Councilman Leon F. Pinckett said he would not support repealing the Planned Unit Development for the project as it was designed.
Following the councilman’s statement, Paff said VS Clipper Mill LLC would now be “perfectly happy” to pursue the project as allowed by the Planned Unit Development.
Under the new zoning regulations the city set out to attract dense infill and transit oriented development. Because existing overlays and districts were left in place, in some cases out of political necessity, Transform Baltimore can only go so far in encouraging those types of building.