Fate of Northern District Police Station Not Clear

by Lynda Lambert

Can an already-approved Planned Unit Development be substantially changed without further community input? Hampden and Wyman Park neighbors seek answers.

Close to 300 people crowded into the community room at Keswick Nursing Home on Thursday, June 29, waiting to hear if rumors about changes to the planned unit development (PUD) for historic Northern District were true or false.

Wendy Blair, an owner of Keyser Development, which won the rights to develop the site in a competitive process, stepped to the podium and apologized for the “misinformation” the community may have heard. She said that no changes had been made to the proposal since the PUD (Planned Unit Development) for the former police station had been presented and approved.

She declined, however, to state that no changes would be made in the future, although several questioners tried to get her to do so.

Blair did say that Keyser had been approached about the site by Baltimore Lab School, currently on Roland Avenue, but that there were no plans “at this time” to rent space to the school.

Blair also noted that their anchor tenant, Heritage Bank, had pulled out of the project, taking with it major funding, and said that was why they were looking for a replacement anchor tenant.

Blair, and later Stanley Keyser, another owner of the development company who joined the meeting about 45 minute after it started, stated that they had talked with other banks but that “no banks wanted to locate in Hampden unless they were on The Avenue [West 36th Street].”

Later, however, Blair acknowledged that Heritage Bank had actually pulled out of the project prior to the PUD approval. This meant that the developer knew going into the project that it would need a new, large anchor tenant to make the project financially feasible.

During the meeting, the developer’s rental agent confirmed that smaller tenants had been put on hold while the developers continued to look for the anchor.

At this point, a questioner from the floor asked, “Why is a school being considered?” Blair replied, “Why not?”

Hands flew up all over the room amid groans and angry outbursts from the audience.

According to an officer of the Wyman Park Association who stood in rebuttal, the approved PUD specified “small offices from 500 to 15,000 square feet.” No such tenant would be large enough to qualify as an “anchor tenant.”

A representative from Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) said during the meeting that Keyser Development had come to BDC with the idea of a single-use tenant, but that such a significant change was thought by BDC to require PUD review by BDC, the Department of Planning and the City Council.

A representative from the Planning Department subsequently said that a change to a single-use tenant, particularly a school, did not constitute a “significant change” as far as Planning was concerned, and would not need to be reviewed, since a school was not specifically excluded from the PUD.

Asked if there was some way for the community to amend the PUD to specifically exclude a school, the BDC representative said that it could be done if a member (or members) of the City Council asked for an amendment.

Since there were two members of the City Council present, Catherine Pugh and Keifer Mitchell, they took the podium, telling the audience that they would “do what the community wanted.”

Throughout the meeting, both with a voice vote and show of hands, the community had made it clear that it did not want the school and that it wanted the PUD followed as written.

Asked whether he needed a formal letter from the community to start the amendment process, Councilman Mitchell said he did.

At this point the vice president of the Wyman Park group began writing, and, within a few minutes, he had penned a letter which people signed. It was given to the Councilpersons as they left the meeting.

Update: Subsequent to the meeting, The Northern District Taskforce drafted a more formal letter which delineates the request to exclude “schools and other institutions” from the Northern District PUD. The ordinance, which at this time is to be known as Ordinance 02-370, is still being finalized. Concerned neighbors are encouraged to let their councilpersons know their feelings as to any PUD changes.

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This story was published on June 4, 2003.