In March, controversy erupted when Baltimore’s preservation panel voted to allow the tear down of the historic Hendler Creamery building after a single hearing, instead of following the legally prescribed format of a two-hearing deliberation.
Coming under fire, the Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) restarted the process and reversed themselves, ruling that the 131-year-old structure does retain “historic and cultural significance.”
With the building facing a crucial second hearing later today – the Demolition II hearing that CHAP Executive Director Eric Holcomb had originally advised the panel could be skipped – documents obtained by The Brew under a Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA) request show how closely Holcomb worked with the contract buyer to push that approach and to fast-track demolition.
On February 8, Holcomb told would-be purchaser Helping Up Mission that he planned to share with a Housing Department official a report produced by Helping Up’s engineer that described the building as deteriorated beyond repair.
If the housing official “determines that the current conditions represent an immediate safety hazard (imminent threat of collapse), he will order the structure to be razed,” Holcomb said in an email to Helping Up’s attorney, Jon Laria.
“In that case, no CHAP hearing is required,” Holcomb promised.
The Hendler building’s defenders contend that while the structure is dilapidated, its ornate facade is heavily braced-up and not about to fall down.
“I have ideas on how to present this information to the Commission in an ‘easy to understand and evaluate’ way” – Email from CHAP Director Eric Holcomb.
Two days later, the building got a reprieve. Holcomb told Laria that the housing official “did not think it is an emergency needing to be taken down now,” and thanked the lawyer for “a detailed report.”
Holcomb went on to ask for “the contact person(s) who I can talk to about the report and preparing for the March hearing,” explaining, “I have some ideas about how to organize the information to present to the commission at the hearing.”
He again proffered assistance as he discussed meetings between Helping Up and CHAP ahead of the March hearing.
“I thought the engineer’s report was very thorough and the pictures came out fine,” he wrote on February 16 to the prospective buyers, whose plan to purchase the property is contingent on getting permission to take the building – which is on the National Register of Historic Places – down.
“I have a couple of ideas on how to present this information to the Commission in a ‘easy to understand and evaluate’ way,” he promised.
“Thank you again for your efforts at the hearing, and especially for your thoughtful guidance in preparing the Helping Up Mission presenters prior to the hearing” – Helping Up attorney Alyssa Domzal to Eric Holcomb.
After Helping Up got a favorable vote, Alyssa Domzal, another Helping Up attorney, wrote to Holcomb:
“Thank you again for your efforts at the Commission hearing last week, and especially for your thoughtful guidance in preparing the HUM [Helping Up Mission] presenters prior to the hearing,” Domzal said.
“It is quite a relief to the entire team to be able to move forward with the acquisition now, without waiting another month for a second hearing.”
Some of the material responsive to The Brew’s information request was withheld, but emails and other documents released offer a glimpse of the cast of characters working seemingly alongside Holcomb on the project.
The politically connected current owner of the property, Kevin Johnson, of Commercial Group, was copied in some of the emails.
Also kept in the loop, the documents show, were high-level officials at the Planning Department and at the Baltimore Development Corporation as well as Helping Up president emeritus, Robert K. Gehman, and real estate attorney M. Ari Storch, of Rosenberg, Martin and Greenberg.
CHAP Credibility Questioned
The interactions are surfacing amid larger concerns – raised by the Hendler case and a number of other historic building demolitions – about CHAP’s commitment to protecting its unique architectural and cultural fabric.
Fred Shoken and Donna Beth Joy Shapiro, the couple who formally objected to CHAP’s handling of the Hendler matter, questioned not only the procedure, but the fact that the official video of the March 14 meeting has a nearly one-hour gap during discussion of Helping Up’s demolition request.
(That footage, Holcomb has since told the commission, is “unrecoverable.”)
“There is serious question as to whether you are a panel about historic preservation or historic demolition” – city resident Dolph Druckman.
Shoken, a former CHAP staffer, and other critics, including former Baltimore Heritage president William Pencek, have said that the Hendler could potentially be preserved and re-purposed and called for an independent assessment of its condition.
CHAP itself was assailed at the hearing, with one speaker warning that the panel, whose members are appointed by the mayor, is in danger of losing all credibility.
“There is serious question as to whether you are a panel about historic preservation or historic demolition,” city resident Dolph Druckman chided.
In its May 9 vote, the commission acknowledged the building’s value because of its intact architectural details and its place in city history as a onetime ice cream packing plant, Yiddish theater and streetcar powerhouse.
Today’s hearing is an opportunity for the applicants to argue that denial of their demolition request imposes an undue hardship – and for the preservationists to argue that demolition harms the public by disregarding city preservation laws.
Helping Up and its expert have said at previous hearings that, after the roof was removed, the walls were so exposed to the elements that they are unsalvagable. The nonprofit plans to use the cleared parcel for “green space” and perhaps future construction.
Opponents allege that, under the sway of lax city government and a politically-plugged-in developer, an otherwise intact old building was allowed to fall into near-ruin – demolition by neglect, as it has come to be called.
Staff Questioned Roof Demo
Kevin Johnson’s Commercial Group had said from the beginning it wanted to remove walls and the roof in order to incorporate the old building’s facade into a proposed $75 million, six-level apartment project with an upscale Harbor East vibe.
Documents reviewed by The Brew show that permission for removal of the roof – sought by the company in 2012 shortly after it was purchased – was initially resisted by CHAP staff.
“The removal of the gable roof as proposed changes the overhaul volume and shape of the structure, which will detract from the historic character of the structure,” a staff report presented by Holcomb read.
“The applicant should think about incorporating the roof into a design which could allow for connecting the flat portions of the roof through minimal alterations to the pediment.”
The staff recommended approval with this proviso:
“Applicant will rethink the complete removal of the pediment roof and bring back alternatives design treatments to the full commission.”
In 2015 the company came back with an even more extreme plan – not only to remove the roof, but to demolish the Hendler building’s entire east elevation, one bay of the north elevation and the building’s interior structure.
A new east wall was then to be “constructed of contemporary materials that would support a replication of the existing gable roof running the length of the building.”
In the same time period, Johnson’s company was making generous campaign contributions to then State Senator Catherine Pugh.
CHAP staff recommended disapproval “due to the extent of the proposed demolition,” but the commission greenlighted the idea concept.
In the same time period, Johnson’s company was making generous campaign contributions to State Senator Catherine Pugh, then running for mayor.
Commercial Home Builders, listed at his company’s street address, wrote a check for $6,000 to the Committee to Elect Catherine Pugh.
On the same day, March 15, 2016, a Commercial vice president wrote another $6,000 check to Pugh’s campaign.
Johnson did not explain why nothing had happened on the project in 2017, when he again came before CHAP. But but he painted a rosy picture of the future.
“It’s life changing for this entire area, transforming for this entire neighborhood,” Johnson said at the meeting, according to the Baltimore Business Journal. “I’m moved emotionally by [CHAP’s] support and hope this continues to transform Jonestown.”
At this meeting, CHAP approved Johnson’s plan, allowing for the roof removal and other demolition that staff had opposed.
And as those who have followed The Brew’s coverage or driven by the site know, the structure was subjected to major demolition.
It was left in a state that the buyer now says is justification for allowing it to be completely torn down.