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Census Non-Census

Mystery Surrounds Legal Effort to Block Rehabilitation of Crumbling Census Building

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 12/4/2002

A largely derelict and decaying--but still handsome--19th-century factory building is slated for rebirth as a multimillion-dollar apartment complex. A seasoned historic preservation developer is driving the project and, outside of preservation tax credits, it isn't asking for any public money. The city's tax base goes up, a hoary Baltimore edifice doesn't come down, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Well, maybe. When it comes to the long-awaited renovation of Charles Village's Census Building, a largely empty and badly decayed warehouse at 2601 N. Howard St., this usually win-win historic property rehab scenario has hit a legal snag. A petition has been filed in Baltimore Circuit Court to overrule the Baltimore Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals September decision to approve the building's conversion into a loft-style apartment house.

"I am not opposed to renovation of the Census Building, as anyone who has actually heard me talk about it knows," says Douglas Armstrong, a resident of the 2800 block of Howard Street and petitioner in the Circuit Court case. "However, I'm not going to comment on anything concerning a legal action." (A brief has yet to be filed in the case, so the exact basis of the complaint is not available.)

Richmond, Va.-based Historic Housing LLC acquired the four-story Census Building last month for $1 million. (It was named for its one-time use as a regional hub for U.S. Census reporting, though it was built in phases as a factory between 1890 and 1915). The firm, which specializes in historic renovations, spent the past year developing plans to carve the 72,000-square-foot building into 93 apartments. This would be the company's first Baltimore project, and construction costs could top $9 million.

"I am absolutely in favor of this project--I can practically see the building from my house," says Diane Brunetti, a 15-year resident of 100 block of West 27th Street. "It would help turn this neighborhood around."

Brunetti attended a number of public meetings concerning the project as it wound its way through the approval process. She says project supporters outnumbered opponents by at least three to one. A neighborhood petition in support of the project drew about 300 signatures, and the Charles Village Civic Association gave Historic Housing its blessing.

But Armstrong was among a group of opponents who spoke out against the project--and its potentially negative impact on area parking and congestion.

City Council Bill 02-712, enacted in August, rezoned the Census Building property to O-R-2 (office/residential use) from its earlier designation as an industrial building. Under the new designation, a developer is legally required to provide one off-street parking space for every two units. Historic Housing's plans call for providing off-street parking for 77 cars on two lots adjacent to the building--30 more spaces than required by law. However, at an August Zoning Board hearing, Armstrong voiced his opposition to the project based on its location in a designated "parking-lot district" that restricts how and where parking lots can be created. He posits that an ordinance from the mayor and City Council is required before for Historic Housing can use the lots for tenant parking.

"It is extremely disappointing to hear about this litigation," says Historic Housing principal H. Louis Salomonsky. "We are perplexed, and don't know what more we can do to make everybody happy. It's a shame that people just want to tear down something that's good. I suppose some people just don't know how to get their feet off their own shoelaces."

Salomonsky says his firm is reworking the Census Building designs somewhat so as to "end up with a few less apartments." They are increasing the number of two-bedroom units and adding a few luxury units. He adds that, although the plan is to have construction underway by June, "we probably won't be able to start until the legal action is over." No court date has been set.

"This our first project in Baltimore, and we're just not familiar with the details of zoning ordinances and procedures," Salomonsky adds. "We are compelled to rely on the wisdom of the community and the authorizing agencies. I feel this is a very positive development for the city."

Pauline Davis, the economic development and housing director for the Charles Village Community Benefits District, calls Armstrong's potentially development-marring actions "a tragedy for the community."

"That beautiful old building is just falling into disrepair," she says. "We finally have a developer who, through their own funding, wants turn it into very nice apartments being held at bay without good reason."

Armstrong would not comment further on his suit. He counters opponents only by saying, "At some point, I'll be more than happy to talk about it. But not right now."

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