City gives OK to 1887 rehab

Gatehouse: Unaware of the developer's rocky history, Baltimore officials approved a plan to turn a decrepit east-side landmark into an office building.

August 22, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore officials approved yesterday a lease to allow the renovation of a Gothic, 115-year-old building at the entrance to Lake Clifton High School without knowing that the developer has a history of liens, lawsuits and failed projects.

The developer, Charles T. Jeffries, proposes to transform the Lake Clifton Gatehouse -- a huge, octagonal landmark with stained-glass windows, arches, pillars and a tower atop its roof -- into business offices, according to an agreement approved by the city's Board of Estimates.

Built in 1887, the former water pumping station has been neglected so long it looks a bit like a haunted church.

A stout tree grows out of its side. The tile roof has so many holes that its vast interior resembles the inside of a planetarium, with a galaxy of lights filtering through the gloom. The doors are smashed open, and homeless people have dragged in mattresses, vodka bottles and heaps of clothing.

"It's an important historic building, but it's in very dilapidated shape," said William Pencek, director of the Baltimore City Heritage Area, a city program to promote development of historic sites.

Another obstacle appears to be Jeffries' track record, which includes at least nine lawsuits and several judgments and liens against him, according to court records.

About a quarter-mile away in Northeast Baltimore, a 190-home renovation project that Jeffries promoted two years ago as "the most ambitious project" in city history has stalled in liens, lawsuits and more than $572,000 in unpaid judgments against him.

Perlman Place, in the 1900 block of Perlman Ave., remains a nearly abandoned strip of gutted and boarded-up brick rowhouses in a tough neighborhood just south of North Avenue.

Jeffries had promised that the project would draw "urban pioneers" to luxury homes priced around $200,000.

But then his lender, Golden Prague Federal Savings and Loan, won a $539,147 judgment against him in July of last year for failing to complete the project. City Circuit Judge Ellen M. Heller called the project "a particularly disturbing scheme."

Then Jeffries' attorney in that lawsuit, Venable, Baetjer and Howard, won a $33,333 judgment against him in October for failing to pay his legal bills.

"He seems to have a problem paying his bills," said Robert Fulton Dashiell, attorney for Golden Prague Federal Savings and Loan. "We have liens against him, but he doesn't appear to have any assets. Perlman Place is desolate."

Jeffries could not be reached for comment yesterday. A phone number at his office at 1900 Perlman Place was disconnected, and nobody there answered the door.

The city's five-member Board of Estimates, which approves city contracts and leases, voted unanimously yesterday to lease the gatehouse to Jeffries.

City Comptroller Joan Pratt, chairwoman of the city space committee that prepared the lease, said that she had not heard about Jeffries' past or the Perlman Place project.

"I wasn't familiar with that," said Pratt. "But the city is protected, because if this project doesn't materialize, the city can terminate the lease at any time with 90 days' notice," said Pratt.

The three-year lease allows Jeffries to extend his use of the building for another 47 years, with payments starting at $1,000 a year and rising 3 percent a year. But Jeffries must first complete an architectural study of the building and then finish all renovations within 18 months, according to the lease.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said she would have at least asked for a delay of the vote had she known about Jeffries' past.

Jeffries appears to remain optimistic about his projects. A caretaker at the Perlman Place site, Earl Jackson, said yesterday that Jeffries -- after some delays -- hopes to start work on the mostly abandoned street of rowhouses soon.

"He's suggested that he may find a new lender soon and still go forward, but we haven't seen any signs of that," said Dashiell, lawyer for the former lender.

The city built the gatehouse -- on the site of the former summer estate of Johns Hopkins, founder of the university -- to house valves and machinery to guide the flow of municipal water through 108-inch underground pipes from Lake Montebello south to the rest of the city, according to city records.

Douglas Tawney, the city's parks director three decades ago, declared in 1973 that the long-neglected eyesore should be torn down. But the city never got around to demolishing it, and other past proposals to transform it into a cafe, bus shelter or museum all failed.

"I'm in favor of keeping these old things," Tawney said in an article that year. "But sometimes it's like a horse ridden almost to the point of death. It's almost more merciful to give him the coup de grace."

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