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Clipper Mill residents request historic protection for Tractor Building

A sign on display during Monday’s meeting created by residents to illustrate their fight against the owner of Clipper Mill, uses imagery from the popular "Street Fighter II” video game series. Residents, led by Jessica Meyer at left, have fought the proposal for new building in the area. (The Daily Record / Adam Bednar)

A sign on display at a 2018 community meeting illustrates residents’ fight against the owner of Clipper Mill by using imagery from the popular Street Fighter II video game series. (The Daily Record / Adam Bednar)

An attorney representing homeowners in Baltimore’s Clipper Mill neighborhood has requested the city’s historic preservation panel add a prominent building tabbed for redevelopment to a protected list.

Attorney John C. Murphy sent a letter on behalf of his clients on Thursday to Eric Holcomb, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, asking the Tractor Building be listed as a potential landmark.

“The owners of the Tractor Building have proposed alterations which do not retain the historic features of the building, notably the seven structures on the roof which let light into the interior. This is a signature feature of the building,” Murphy writes. “The removal of the roof structures will be a significant alteration of the historic character of this building.”

The letters were sent as the proposed overhaul of the Tractor Building winds its way through the city’s design review process. By placing the vacant structure on the list Murphy’s clients hope to play for time so the property can be designated a historic landmark and force property owner VS Clipper Mill LLC to changes plans for the site.

Designs for the project are slated for review by the Urban Design and Advisory Panel on Aug. 29. The project also is simultaneously under review by the Planning Commission.

Baltimore Planning Director Chris Ryer and Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel members were also mailed letters objecting to the proposed Tractor Building redevelopment.

Murphy, in a telephone interview on Friday, said his clients’ objections include the developers intent to remove several glass-sided structures on the building’s roof that provide light to the interior.

“Taking them off is a really severe alteration of the historic nature of the building,” he said.

Murphy said every other historic building in the former industrial mill site, located along the Jones Falls in the shadow of Interstate 83, went through “a painstaking historic renovation.”

“When Clipper Mill was (re)developed, all the other historic buildings were restored to a T; they really followed all the historic restoration rules to a T,” he said.

In his letter to Ryer, Murphy opposes Planning Department staff reviewing the proposal as a modification to a previous plan for the building approved in 2008.

The current proposal, according to Murphy, consists of a new building within the existing facade, and unlike the prior plan the developer is not seeking historic preservation tax credits. Accepting those tax credits requires strict adherence to guidelines preserving a structure’s exterior.

The appeal to list the Tractor Building as a historic property is the latest chapter in a battle over development at Clipper Mill that stretches back more than a year and centers on parking.

Parking’s role in the dispute has highlighted Baltimore’s limitations in encouraging transit-oriented development with lower, or even zero, parking requirements if they face opposition from politically savvy residents loathe to give up their cars in light of Baltimore’s transit deficiencies.

ValStone Partners, a private equity firm, purchased the Clipper Mill complex and the associated development rights in 2017 for nearly $19 million. Its affiliate, VS Clipper Mill, then proposed adding up to 336 luxury apartments, potentially 6,500 square feet of office space and retail at the roughly 17-acre campus adjacent the Clipper Mill Light Rail stop.

That development proposal required the repeal of a zoning overlay, called a Planned Unit Development, that limits density and preserves parking requirements.

By repealing the PUD the area’s zoning would revert to city-designated Transit Oriented Development-2, easing minimum parking requirements.

Residents rallied support last summer in opposition to repealing the PUD. Councilman Leon Pinkett III in August said he opposed the repeal, which basically would kill the proposal because PUD repeal requires City Council approval.

The development team, listed as Garver Development Group and ValStone Partners, returned earlier this year with a development plan its lawyers said met PUD restrictions. The builders in July presented designs for 30 townhomes to be built on a parking lot at 2001 Druid Park Drive.

Residents objected to that proposal, arguing the PUD’s Final Development Plan shows the lot as parking for 46 cars. The site should also remain parking, homeowners said, because its loss reduced the amount of already limited parking.

Residents’ ire was further raised in May when a pair of historic mill buildings in the nearby 3500 block of Clipper Mill Road were demolished to make room for a transit-oriented apartment building.

The historic structures were razed after that development team promised residents and the city’s design panel they’d be retained. The city granted permits to raze the buildings, but then fined the property owner and demolition company for housing code violations.

This story was updated to add that the city granted permits to raze the historic mill buildings and that the property owner and demolition company were fined for violations related to the demolition.


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