Beans & Bread Isn't A Good Neighbor

August 21, 2009|By Deirdre Hammer

The Sun got it wrong in its editorial supporting the expansion of the Beans & Bread soup kitchen in Fells Point. Thirteen associations and groups representing the Greater Fells Point area don't find it to be "a welcome expansion." Everyone in the community can agree that Beans & Bread has outgrown its present location and needs to expand somewhere. But the proposed expansion at its present site would create a major institutional use in a residentially zoned area. The operator of Beans & Bread, Baltimore's St. Vincent de Paul Society, is asking for too much activity on too small of a lot.

The soup kitchen, which was begun in 1977 as a storefront operation, now wants to spend $4.3 million to expand its present 16,900-square-foot facility into a 23,200-square-foot facility. Aside from the cost of this project, which comes to an astronomical $682 per additional square foot of space, the project is too large for its site. Beans & Bread is asking for a variance that would allow it to occupy 87 percent of its lot. The zoning laws allow 40 percent lot coverage. It is asking that a 25-foot setback requirement be reduced to zero. It has no plans to provide parking for the expanded facility, which it says will employ 20 workers and continue to serve 94,000 meals a year.

St. Vincent de Paul now claims that its expansion is not designed to increase the number of patrons of Beans & Bread. But when it was seeking bond funds from the General Assembly, it presented the legislators with a written statement claiming that the expansion would increase the numbers served by the soup kitchen. If the organization was telling the truth when it was seeking funds from the General Assembly, it is planning to create a massive intrusion in a neighborhood that has worked hard to establish a delicate balance between older commercial uses and private homes.

St. Vincent de Paul also is trying to sell its project to the community by claiming that the expansion would provide it with a staging area to remove the bread line from the front of its building. Those of us who have lived in the community through three expansions of Beans & Bread have heard this before. In 1996, when it was seeking approval of its last expansion, St. Vincent de Paul pledged in writing that the soup kitchen would have a 90-seat indoor waiting area. That promise was broken.

In its editorial, The Sun describes Beans & Bread's neighborhood as an area dominated by warehouses, small auto shops, and the Perkins Homes public housing project. This description overlooks the fact that the residents of the neighborhood worked diligently with Councilman James Kraft to have the area's zoning classification changed from industrial to residential. The comprehensive rezoning was passed in 2007, before St. Vincent de Paul spent three times appraised value for the building where it plans to put its expansion.

The Fells Point area is already host to an inordinate amount of social services, and the neighborhood around Beans & Bread is rife with nuisance behavior, disorderly conduct, loitering and excessive trash. The proposed expansion, with all the commercial activity it brings - foot traffic, car traffic, noise, and parking problems - will detract from the character of the neighborhood and hinder revitalization efforts.

Much of Fells Point was vacant and boarded when Beans & Bread first opened but a lot has happened in 32 years. The industrial uses are gone. The boarded up houses have been renovated, Broadway's Port Mission closed, and neighborhoods have rebounded. Much of the homeless population, which is transient by its very nature, shifted to the Central Avenue corridor where there are two residential shelters. St. Vincent de Paul owns a building directly in the middle of these shelters but instead of basing its operations at that location, it is trying to sell that building and expand in Fells Point.

No one disputes that the homeless should be helped. We simply contend that Beans & Bread's expansion plan is not the best way to spend $4.3 million in government and charitable money and it is not an appropriate land use.

Deirdre Hammer is president of the Douglass Place Neighborhood Association. Her e-mail is dlh411@gmail.com.

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