High hopes for bigger city homes raise ire

Opponents say adding extra stories blocks harbor views, ruins character

July 18, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

AT ISSUE IS THE DESIRE OF MANY PROPERTY OWNERS — In the booming neighborhoods of South and Southeast Baltimore, city officials and community leaders are grappling with the thorny question of under what circumstances bigger houses may be better.

At issue is the desire of many property owners -- homeowners as well as developers -- to enlarge narrow, two-story rowhouses by constructing third-story additions.

The idea is to keep the dwellings, built in the 1800s and early 1900s for factory and ship workers, attractive to the young professionals who have transformed the areas into hip, urban enclaves as they start families.

But some neighbors and community leaders complain that many proposed additions threaten to ruin the vertical symmetry of streets, destroying their historical character; block the waterfront views of nearby residences and threaten to further gentrify the area by turning modest buildings into more pricey showpieces.

Requests for the additions in such neighborhoods as Butchers Hill, Canton, Riverside and Upper Fells Point have become so numerous -- and the debate over them at times so contentious -- that at least one community group has decided that it will no longer take positions on plans for specific properties.

And the requests are clogging the biweekly docket of the city zoning board, whose five members are sometimes as sharply split in their opinions as the neighborhoods and where officials estimate that only about half of the appeals are approved.

"Nobody knows which way to go. It's a mess," said David C. Tanner, executive director of the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals. Late last year, in response to community concerns, the board began requiring public hearings for such proposed additions, instead of just routine administrative reviews.

In an effort to provide some direction, the city's Department of Planning has invited community leaders to a workshop Tuesday night as a first step in developing criteria to help the zoning board review the requests fairly, while taking into account issues of design and neighborhood compatibility.

"We thought it made sense to set up rules and guidelines," said City Planning Director Otis Rolley III.

Rolley acknowledged that some additions might not be appropriate but said that people's interest in investing in residential properties is a positive sign for Baltimore, which has struggled for decades to attract and retain residents.

"It shows a level of commitment to the city," he said. "People are staying. They want to improve the houses that they're in."

John Palumbi's case illustrates the sides of the issue.

A resident for 10 years of a two-story, 12-foot-wide rowhouse on Belt Street in the Riverside section of South Baltimore, Palumbi wanted to add a third story to create more space for himself, his wife and the couple's 2 1/2 -year-old daughter.

Palumbi, an executive with the Internet company Advertising.com in nearby Locust Point, spent $3,750 on plans to add a master bedroom, second bathroom and sloping roof that would cost upward of $50,000. He enlisted the support of his community association, the Riverside Action Group, as well as the neighbors on both sides.

But, with other nearby residents opposed, the zoning board rejected his application in March by a 3-2 vote, one vote short of the four needed for approval. After receiving a waiver of the 12-month waiting period for resubmitting an application, Palumbi lowered the height of his project by a foot. But the board turned him down again last month.

Standing last week on his rooftop deck, which offers a spectacular view of the Inner Harbor, Palumbi counted about a dozen nearby rowhouses that had three stories and said he was troubled by the apparent "inconsistency" of what was allowed and what wasn't.

"We love it here so much," he said. "I'm five minutes from work. ...We want to stay here. ... I'm going back every 12 months until we get approval."

Several neighbors who opposed his request for the addition are just as passionate.

Eric Boyer, a stock analyst who lives a few doors from Palumbi, wrote the board that "the proposed addition will be out of character for the street."

Elizabeth Turner, who lives a block to the west, complained that the addition would block her view of the water and the Domino's Sugar sign; she called Palumbi's proposal "a greedy monstrosity."

A year ago, property owners like Palumbi could have won approval by an administrative review, provided that the height of the building did not exceed the 35-foot limit allowed under the zoning code.

But after receiving complaints from neighbors about the proliferation of additions, zoning officials decided that a public hearing should be required for the expansion of rowhouses that are less than 16 feet wide -- the minimum width for new structures under current regulations.

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