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Historic District Faces Development Pressure

Neighborhoodsby Ed Gunts and Mark Reutter11:27 amDec 18, 20200

Planning Commission keeps residents “on mute” during public hearing

It’s not the first time the Planning Commission has muted citizens. Meanwhile, Clipper Mill developer Larry Jennings meets with Nick Mosby at a Baltimore County Starbuck’s.

Above: Exterior of the Tractor Building, part of the Poole & Hunt industrial complex where the columns of the U.S. Capitol were made. (Ed Gunts)

In its first public meeting since Brandon Scott became mayor, with Scott’s chief of staff participating, Baltimore’s Planning Commission barred city residents from providing testimony on an item it was considering.

After waiting more than an hour to testify about Larry Jennings’ development project in their community, Woodberry residents were told the commission would not be taking public testimony before voting on the matter, and they would not be permitted to speak.

During its virtual session yesterday, the commission did offer to listen to public testimony about other agenda items, including a proposed land subdivision near Johns Hopkins Hospital and a partial street closing in South Baltimore.

But when it came to the final item of the day, described on the agenda as a “discussion” about the final development plans for the historic Tractor Building, there was no discussion between the commission and the community.

Chairman Sean Davis made it clear up front that he wasn’t interested in hearing from the public.

“For those of you who are on the phone, or who are on mute, there will be no public testimony as part of this,” he declared.

“I hope you understand”

Several minutes later, Davis acknowledged the agenda didn’t warn people from Woodberry that they wouldn’t be allowed to address the commission.

“I know there are a number of people who are on the attending list who probably want to testify for this,” he said. “I hope you understand.”

The meeting had been listed on the commission’s agenda without any indication that it would be held in “closed session” or that the public would otherwise be prohibited from testifying.

Because it was held virtually and a city employee controls both the mute button and phone lines, Davis had the ability to allow or deny public testimony as he saw fit. There was no room filled with an angry crowd that he had to face.

No other panel member, including Scott’s chief of staff, Michael Huber, or the panel’s City Council representative Eric Costello, questioned Davis’ decision or suggested that he reconsider.

Sean Davis kept citizen comments on mute during the Planning Commission's

Without objections from other commission members, Sean Davis forbid citizen comments during yesterday’s “discussion” of the politically-sensitive Tractor Building project. (WebEx)

After the meeting, John C. Murphy, an attorney representing two homeowner groups in Clipper Mill, said he was troubled by the commission’s action.

“It was advertised as a public hearing, and they didn’t allow the public to speak. I think that’s wrong,” Murphy said. “To not allow the public to speak on a momentous decision of this sort, I just think is improper.”

Not the First Muting

This is the second time private citizens have been unable to speak at a public hearing held by the Planning Commission.

After a meeting in October, four members of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association said they weren’t able to testify about a plan to subdivide the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church property.

The Tractor Building hearing had been ordered by Circuit Court Judge John Nugent after residents appealed two votes by the commission last June to approve final development plans by Jennings to construct 98 apartments on the Tractor Building site.

The Clipper Mill residents argued that the planning commission didn’t provide “findings of fact,” as required by law, to support its votes to approve Jennings project.

A month later, Jennings filed a $25 million lawsuit against residents and two homeowners boards for testifying against his plans, saying their challenges have cost him millions of dollars.

Nugent dismissed the lawsuit last month as an illegal SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), Last Friday, Jennings’ lawyers filed notice that they will appeal his decision.

Jennings Confers with Mosby

On Tuesday morning, Jennings was seen holding a private conversation with Baltimore’s new City Council president, Nick Mosby, outside the Starbucks at 6227 North Charles Street just over the city-county line.

They met seated across from each other. Mosby wore a mask; Jennings did not, The Brew was told.

Jennings later confirmed he and Mosby had talked. Asked about the subject of the meeting, Jennings said, “We talked about the weather.” He declined further comment.

Mosby’s office was asked on Tuesday to explain why he was meeting with the businessman. Neither Mosby nor his communications director has yet to respond.

Asked about the subject of his meeting with Mosby, Jennings said, “We talked about the weather.”

Jennings’ sphere of influence at City Hall was further underscored by his appointment by Mayor Scott to serve on the mayor’s transition committee.

Sources say Jennings was reluctant to serve on the panel, but acquiesced at the mayor’s request. Scott’s communications director has since defended the selection, saying Scott values “Mr. Jennings’ perspective as a Black businessman from Park Heights as one of the 26 members on the Housing Committee.”

Jennings grew up in Park Heights, but now lives in a luxury condominium in North Baltimore. Last night, Jennings sent an email to The Brew clarifying how he should be addressed:

“In all references to my name and function, I should be referenced as ‘private equity fund manager,’ not developer, That is my proper title. Have a good holiday,” he wrote.

Larry Jennings poses with a student band when he was chairman of Park Heights Renaissance, nonprofit corporation charged with revitalizing the neighborhood (Park Heights Renaissance)

Larry Jennings with a student band when he was chairman of Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit corporation charged with revitalizing the northwest neighborhood. (Park Heights Renaissance)

Findings of Fact

After Davis told Woodberry residents they could not speak, he explained that the Tractor Building item was put on the commission’s agenda to address the judge’s order, not to take new testimony from the public.

“This is a consideration of the findings of fact and conclusions of law regarding a hearing that was held back in June of 2020, on June 18, 2020,” he said. “All public testimony was taken at that time. This is just the recordation of the findings of fact and conclusions of law.”

For six minutes yesterday, Davis read into the record a report he wrote, recapping the commission’s deliberations leading up to its votes to approve the Tractor Building conversion on June 18.

Commissioner Eric Stephenson asked Davis why the development plans for the Tractor Building weren’t reviewed by the Maryland Historical Trust, as required under the Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning legislation that guides development at Clipper Mill.

Davis told Stephenson that the requirement, while in the original PUD, had been “superseded” by subsequent discussions with the Maryland Historical Trust and the city’s Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation.

Assistant Planning Director Laurie Feinberg suggested that Davis might want to alter his findings of fact to note that Woodberry was not a city historic district on June 18 and, therefore, not under CHAP’s purview when the Planning Commission took its action.

The Planning Commission “didn’t talk about whether the project was a good idea. The fact of the matter is, it’s a terrible idea” – Lawyer John Murphy.

Clipper Mill residents Jeff Pietrzak and Jared Block submitted written testimony on behalf of the homeowner groups they represent. It was never read into the public record.

The commission voted 6-0 to approve Davis’ statement and send it to Judge Nugent. Huber abstained, and at least one member dropped out of the meeting before the vote was taken.

The Poole & Hunt Foundry and Machine Works a century ago, and the same site (below) after they were turned into offices. shops and a restaurant by Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse. (CHAP)

Looking west toward the Tractor Building when the Poole & Hunt Works was a major manufacturer of metal castings and railway equipment. (Baltimore Commission for Historical & Architectural Preservation)

Missing the Big Picture

Attorney Murphy, who watched the meeting, said he wasn’t impressed with Davis’s write-up. He  said that the commission, by its action, is allowing Jennings to tear down much of the historic building in order to construct a hive of apartments inside the shell.

What alarmed him most about Davis’ summary, Murphy said, was its focus on the ways the panel members were being consistent with the technical requirements of the zoning ordinance, while missing the “big picture” of whether the development was right for Woodberry.

“They didn’t talk about whether the project was a good idea. The fact of the matter is, it’s a terrible idea.”

Murphy said the Tractor Building is the most significant historic structure in Baltimore currently being considered for alteration.

He said he doesn’t think the Maryland Historical Trust would ever support a plan that called for removal of its roof trusses and other original features to accommodate apartments.

Industrial buildings, such as the ones at Clipper Mill, have become more highly regarded today than ever before because of what they say about the past.

“When historic preservation got started, nobody gave a damn about industrial buildings,” Murphy said. “But that was 30, 40 years ago. Now they’re really valued because they represent our history in a very powerful way.”

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