Plan for Oella Mill raises concerns

Builder aims to turn site into apartments

November 19, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The historic Oella Mill, which has grown into an eclectic emporium of art and antique dealers, would be transformed into upscale apartments under a plan being put forward by a Cleveland developer.

Forest City Residential Group has an option to purchase the building and plans to put 177 apartments in the four-story brick structure, which serves as a focal point for Oella, a quaint former mill town in western Baltimore County across the Patapsco River from Ellicott City.

But the project has sparked concerns. Residents in the area worry about traffic jams on two-lane Oella Avenue, the town's main street. And the 100 tenants of the mill are fretting over their future.

"The mill has a lot of character," said Nola Shanks, who sells trunks and quilts in the building. "And there are a lot of people who make their living here."

The contract to buy the property at 840 Oella Ave. from Oella Mills Partnership is contingent upon Forest City successfully navigating the county's development review process. The property is zoned to allow the apartments, company officials said.

Peter Ruff, one of the two owners of the building, said the time was right to sell the 5.8-acre property, which dates to 1809. Ruff and his partner, Daniel Stone, bought the building 22 years ago as an investment property, he said.

Several previous plans to convert the mill into housing fell through over the past two decades, Ruff said.

"Somebody was eventually going to develop it," Ruff said. "But I feel very strongly that Forest City will do it the right way."

The company, which manages residential properties in 17 states, specializes in renovating historic buildings into living space. It has completed similar restorations in Richmond, Va., Philadelphia and Washington.

Company officials estimate the Oella Mill conversion will cost about $24 million. About $6 million will be recouped through federal tax credits because it is part of Oella, a national historic district, company officials said.

The property has been home to a mill since 1809, when Union Manufacturing Co. opened the first textile plant in Maryland. That mill burned down in 1918 and was replaced by the current structure, built by William J. Dickey and Sons, who turned the plant into one of the nation's foremost producers of woolen goods. The working mill closed in 1972.

During the past decade, artists and antique dealers have opened shops and studios in the mill. Local businesses have opened offices there. Paul Dongarra, who has an office for his catering business, Dionysus' Kitchen Inc., in the mill, worries about having to move.

"It's difficult to replace the square footage we have now for the price," Dongarra said.

Gary Saville, operator of Angels and Roses antique store, agreed.

"We don't want the mill to be changed. We want to keep it the way it is," Saville said. "But it looks like it's a done deal."

Forest City plans to charge $1,400 to $3,000 per month for one- and two-bedroom apartments, company officials said. They also plan to provide 240 parking spaces.

"Our vision for Oella is to create a high-end community," said David J. Levey, executive vice president of Forest City. "It's going to enhance the value of the property, but it's also going to enhance the value of the neighborhood."

The chief worry among Oella residents is the impact of the project on traffic. Joe Naide, 70, has lived all his life in Oella, which has a population of about 800.

"The roads are already overrun from development," Naide said. "You add two cars for every apartment and that's much."

Forest City officials are conducting a traffic study. With the necessary approvals, it would be nine months to a year before the company begins construction, Levey said.

Linda Farndon, owner of Wild Goose Chase antique shop, said the building sale will end another mill era.

"We've spent a number of years building up our shops," she said. "We all have to go somewhere."

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