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Tractor Building developer: Cost dictates potential for redesign

Clipper Mill/Tractor Building Rendering (submitted rendering)

Clipper Mill/Tractor Building rendering (Marren Architects)

The developer proposing transforming the Tractor Building in Baltimore’s Clipper Mill area says cost will determine what, if any, redesigns are possible for the contentious redevelopment proposal.

At least three other developers have attempted, and failed, to repurpose the last unrenovated mill building in the community because of associated costs, Larry Jennings, co-founder of private equity firm ValStone Partners, said during an Urban Design and Architecture Advisory Panel review on Thursday.

To support his contention, Jennings pointed to the financial problems that cropped up when another mill building nearby was renovated.

“The person who did the (Assembly Building) was financially unsuccessful and had 27 unsuccessful schemes for this building,” Jennings said.

Jennings’ comments followed Pavlina Ilieva, the panel’s chairwoman’s suggestion that developers explore ways to retain elements of the building. She had used the nearby Assembly Building, which was overhauled by the now defunct firm of Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, as an example. Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, which completed some of the city’s toughest adaptive reuse projects, ceased operations following the 2008 financial collapse.

The panel continued with the design review of the Tractor Building project despite a request from an attorney representing nearby homeowners to place the structure on a list of protected properties.

Earlier this month attorney John C. Murphy, who represents homeowners opposed to the redevelopment, sent a letter to the design panel, various agencies and entities asking that they place the Tractor Building on a temporary protected list.

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, owned by ValStone Partners affiliate VS Clipper Mill LLC, to alter the design.

But on Thursday Anthony Cataldo, who coordinates the panel, said that Murphy’s request does not impact the design review. “The purview of this panel is to advise the (Baltimore) Planning Commission on design,” Cataldo said.

In the letters Murphy and his clients specifically object to the proposed overhaul removing glass-enclosed fixtures atop the building that allow light into the structure, which is currently used for parking.

“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.”

Any redesign of the property, Jennings told the panel, needs to be “realistic” in regards to the development costs. He doubted that Ilieva’s suggestion of the use of a “reverse C” shape on the building to retain the glass structures was economically feasible.

The design by Marren Architects retains a large portion of the Tractor Building’s exterior brick wall and arches. But the design does call for tearing down most of the building’s rear wall and building a new structure inside that footprint.

Ilieva, an architect and principal at PI.KL Studio, praised the design as “bold.” Other members, however, were not as kind.

Panelist Osborne Anthony, also an architect, acknowledge the property is a “ruin to some degree” but expressed disappointment with the proposal’s lack of subtlety.

“Literally what you’re doing is stripping off the roof and putting a big box in there,” Anthony said.

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