Townhouse plan for strip opposed by Otterbein group

April 11, 1994|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Sun Staff Writer

A small patch of land tucked behind a highway in South Baltimore has become an odd source of controversy between the Otterbein Community Association and a developer planning to build townhouses.

Three years ago, the city Board of Estimates agreed to let Congress Hall Square Limited Partnership develop the land -- if neighborhood residents didn't object. But now community leaders say they never agreed to the development plans and want the board to rescind its approval. A vote is scheduled for Wednesday.

Otterbein leaders say they are opposed to the project because six of the 12 homes will be squeezed into a peculiar location -- between a row of existing houses and the Interstate 395 exit ramp.

"They're not on a street, and they're behind a highway," said Nancy Bloom, vice president of the Otterbein association. She lives across the street from the tract, which is behind the 800 block of S. Sharp St. and the 200 block of W. Hill St.

The developer, meanwhile, has nearly completed architectural plans for the 12 houses, has proper zoning and plans to break ground in late June.

"We think it would be incredibly unfair if it was determined that the city did not have the right to give us the ability to build townhouses," said Vic Hencken, managing general partner of Congress Hall.

Otterbein is one of Baltimore's most successful "dollar house" communities, where the city sold vacant rowhouses for $1 in the 1970s. Today, many of the homes are architectural showcases worth $130,000 to $300,000.

In 1991 the Board of Estimates approved Congress Hall's plans for a 79-room inn, but allowed alternative uses to include retail, office or residential development. Plans for the inn were replaced by the townhouse plan.

Minutes of the 1991 meeting show that the board predicated its approval on community approval. A board document states that the city housing department later provided evidence of community approval.

Now, no one can find that evidence.

"It puts me in a difficult place because the board minutes [from 1991] reflect there was documentation [of community approval]," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who also serves as board president. "I'm responsible for providing it. I can't put my hands on it."

There is no law requiring a community to sign off on development plans, but Mrs. Clarke said it has been the city's long-standing practice to get such an endorsement for plans in an urban renewal area. The Congress Hall tract is in the Montgomery Urban Renewal Area.

Baltimore's housing commissioner, Daniel P. Henson III, says it's too late to rescind the city's approval.

"I don't think I have the authority to deny permits to the builder of these 12 townhouses. It's now a pretty ugly vacant lot. Any improvement to it would be positive," said Mr. Henson, who took over the housing department two years after the board approved the Congress Hall project.

Still, Otterbein leaders -- who only learned about the townhouses by reading about them in The Sun -- feel that they were left out.

Last month, they submitted 170 signatures from residents opposing six of the 12 townhouses to Mr. Henson.

"It is disappointing that the city, in trying to create a better place to live, has set up this process of community involvement and totally ignored it," said Jane Epstein, Otterbein president.

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