Turnover at a major D.C. government department is raising questions about local businesses, political contributions and influence in city politics.
Baltimore’s first zoning makeover in 40 years aims to alter the city’s skyline by allowing taller buildings – and more of them. It seeks to kick out corner liquor stores from neighborhoods and encourage a livelier downtown scene. Planning Director Tom Stosur joins Kojo to explain the new vision for Charm City.
- Thomas Stosur Baltimore Planning Director
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, Your Turn, the Maryland move to the Big Ten. Is it over or is this dispute just heating up? And Wilson High School. Should it have been kicked out of the Turkey Bowl because of using one ineligible player? It'll be your turn. But first, the last time Baltimore rewrote its entire zoning code was 1971 when "All In The Family" was the top show on television.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIRichard Nixon was TIME magazine's man of the year and the Baltimore Colts won the Super Bowl. Four decades later, Baltimore is finalizing a new land use law that will shape the future of a city, both dramatically different and, in some ways, unchanged. The new rules would eliminate height limits in the core of downtown, making way for a transformation of the city's skyline by allowing taller buildings.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILiquor stores that some say are a health hazard in poorer neighborhoods would disappear, too, replaced by markets or cafes or galleries. And the high-rise condos sprouting on the waterfront would have to stay clear of land designated for maritime use to guarantee the survival of the city's port. After four years in the works, the city's proposed zoning law now begins two rounds of public hearings, giving residents a chance to share their hopes and concerns about the future of Charm City.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss this is Tom Stosur, he is planning director of the City of Baltimore. He joins us from studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Tom Stosur, thank you for joining us.
MR. THOMAS STOSURI'm pleased to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDITom, the last time Baltimore revised its whole zoning code was in 1971. Why has it taken more than 40 years to update it?
STOSURWell, that's a great question. I think one has to realize the effort that goes into something like this if you truly revise it from, you know, head to toe. And along with that, you need to remap the city, every single parcel. There's about 240,000 parcels in the city, and each of them needs to have a zoning category. So it is a huge undertaking. When they did it in 1971, I understand it took over a decade of preparation to get to that point.
STOSURAnd we now, here, have introduced City Council Bill 12-152, and it's taken us about four years to get to this point now, even with all the GIS and mapping technology we have.
NNAMDIWell, at least now we are here at this point and it would...
STOSURAn exciting moment.
NNAMDIAnd it would appear that the most controversial part of the new plan is removing those corner liquor stores from residential neighborhoods. Why do you want to move liquor stores out, and who is it that's opposed to it?
STOSURWell, we have a wide mix of uses in the city of Baltimore and a lot of legacy from that last zoning code rewrite in '71. And one of the major pieces that has endured this entire 40 years are about a hundred or so of these corner liquor store outlets that were allowed to continue, and the term was grandfathered in even though their zoning categories in '71 became residential zones and there was not suppose to be commercial allowed. And I think the general thinking was of their own accord, they would just, kind of, be filtered out overtime.
STOSURWell, that, by and large, has not happened, and the neighborhoods around those stores have changed significantly. And one of the issues is there are pockets within Baltimore of vacant and blighted buildings. There are neighborhoods that have higher crime rates. And analysis, both locally and nationally, has shown that concentrations of liquor outlets are associated with higher violent crime rates and poor public health outcomes for residents.
STOSURSo with the purpose of zoning being to promote the public health, safety and welfare, it's squarely within our realm to propose this idea of phasing out these liquor stores from being able to sell beer, wine or alcohol within two years of the passage of the new code.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Tom Stosur. He is planning director for the City of Baltimore. And inviting your calls. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about removing corner liquor stores from residential neighborhoods as a public health measure? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDITom Stosur, the new zoning law would also remove the height limit for buildings in the core of Baltimore's downtown. How could the city skyline change under the new rules?
STOSURWell, we really want to open it up in that core of downtown, as you call it. We are expanding the boundaries per the zoning code of what is considered Downtown Baltimore. It goes in the new code, a little further out past Harbor East. It goes a little bit more to the North near -- bordering Jonestown and the elevated portion of the Jones Falls Expressway. But we've carved out that portion of what we call downtown which will be Zone C5 under the new code to relate to specific historic districts that ring it so that there are very strict design controls for the areas bordering this downtown zoning district that we're establishing.
STOSURAnd within the District itself, we have seven subareas that we've singled out for some more specific design controls because they have a special character, places like North Charles Street leading up to the Washington Monument, Redwood Street, which has a really impressive several blocks of historic office buildings that were built, you know, 80 or a hundred years ago.
STOSURAnd we realize that in -- to attract new residents, which is one of Mayor Rawlings-Blake's big goals, to attract 10,000 new households to the city over the next decade, we need to make downtown a very attractive, walkable, pedestrian-friendly kind of place. And we think we can have the best of all worlds with some controls in specific areas where they have special character but loosening up things in other places where we just like to see great new mixed-use projects.
NNAMDIAny time I'm thinking I'm lost in downtown Baltimore and I see North Charles Street, I'd say, Aha, I know exactly where I am now.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What's your favorite feature of Baltimore's skyline? 800-433-8850. Baltimore would like to encourage creative uses for some of its old industrial buildings, it's my understanding. How would this plan try to attract artists and galleries to those places, Tom?
STOSURWell, I think that's one of the big new provisions of this code that we hope is going to have a lasting impact. And we have a great set of older buildings in the city, many of them built, again, 60, 80, a hundred years ago, some even more, multilevel industrial buildings. There's a terrific collection of them along the Jones Falls going up north out of the city and scattered throughout, particularly in places like Greenmount West near Penn Station. There are some very prominent ones.
STOSURAnd they have been zoned industrial and they continue to be until this new code will come in effect. And with the new code, we're tweaking the types of uses and creating a brand-new category for these buildings called IMU or industrial mixed use. So that would allow, as of right, residential as well as artisan or craftsman or gallery space, some limited retail some offices, a whole mix that right now if you wanted to do a bunch of that in an industrial building, you would need to, at the very least, go through a zoning board approval, which would take about four to six weeks on the fast side.
STOSUROr in many cases, especially for residential, you'd have to go through an entire city council legislative process which minimally takes nine months to a year. And what we want to try to encourage is lots of this investment and occupancy of these great old buildings to be done basically over-the-counter when you get your building permit. You can just go ahead and do it.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, Tom Stosur, here is Mossa (sp?) in Baltimore, Md. Mossa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOSSAThank you, Kojo. I'm a first-time caller.
MOSSADirector, I'm a Baltimore native, 30-something, but decided to stay in the city and raise my family in the city. And I live in the Fulton Heights community. And right there in the Fulton Avenue, Fulton and North Avenue, there's three liquor stores within the one-block radius. And I really want to know why do we have to wait two years or more for these liquor stores to be closed down.
STOSURYeah. Well, we have to basically treat people fairly, the business owners and the property owners who, in many cases, this is their life -- livelihood. And sometimes, it's been over generations. And we think a two-year phase-out is a fair balance for giving them time to retool their business and find a way if possible to offer merchandize that doesn't include beer, wine and liquor, hopefully fresh produce and other healthy food options.
STOSURBut there -- those owners of those licenses would also be able to sell or transfer the licenses to a new location that is properly zoned. And I think it is important folks realize if there is -- are liquor stores, and there could be multiple liquor stores now in commercial districts, those are going to be able to remain because they comply with zoning. We're only talking about those hundred or so that are in residentially zoned districts.
NNAMDIMossa, thank you very much for -- well, Mossa, let me ask you a provocative question. Were those liquor stores in the neighborhood when you moved in?
MOSSAYes. They've been there for my entire life. They've always been there.
NNAMDIAnd you just...
MOSSAIs there a penalty if these stores don't close within that two-year period?
STOSURThere certainly would be. They'd be subject to zoning enforcement and that has fines. I think that can be up to $500 a day. But if they don't have the zoning, I think the liquor board pretty much would be forced to shut them down.
NNAMDIMossa, thank you for your call. We move on to Betty in Chevy Chase, Md. Betty, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETTYYes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to also reiterate the same comment that your guest just made about having access to healthy food. Most of these lower-income neighborhoods are often discriminated against by the stores like, you know, Safeway or Giant or whatever. They don't put bigger grocery stores that have more foods available at a lower cost to the residents of those neighborhoods, and I think that would be a huge step in providing some preventative health care.
BETTYA lot of these neighborhoods suffer from an increase in diabetes and other illnesses relating to either poor diet or poor access to healthy food. So even if the little neighborhood stores, you know, were able to have more options as far foods and less on liquor, that would be a great boon to those communities.
NNAMDIBetty, thank you very much for your call. I think you'll find Thom Stosur in agreement.
STOSUROh, absolutely. And I do appreciate those comments. We are working with the city health department and our Baltimore Development Corporation, as well as partners like different foundations. We're exploring ways where maybe we can make some specific business assistance and perhaps even monetary resources available to help some of these businesses make the adjustment to a different merchandising plan.
NNAMDIBetty, thank you for your call. Here is, however, another perspective from Susan in Arlington, Va. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANThank you. I was born and raised in Baltimore. I know how the city has changed with the Inner Harbor. My question is, are you not going to be -- and the parts of where you want to put the zoning in the poorer neighborhoods, North Avenue or around Charles Street, which has been built up, and Ann Arbor, Fells Point and all? What about the liquor store? And I know there's a discount liquor store in Pikesville. And that's where my family moved when I was a teenager out from (word?) Park.
SUSANAren't you discriminating against the low-income neighborhoods in Baltimore where you a high crime rating and continues to have a high crime rates to zone those liquor stores that aren't in compliance as opposed to the middle-income? Whether you live near Hopkins University or Pikesville or other neighborhoods where there already are liquor stores in their middle and high-income folks saying, OK, we know you're going to get drunk in your house and not on the streets. So, therefore, you can have liquor stores.
SUSANBut the low-income folks may not live in wealthy neighborhoods. You're sort of saying, we're going to get to you because the residential neighborhoods don't want you. Isn't this is a form discrimination? And is it fair?
NNAMDIHere's Thom Stosur's response.
STOSURYeah, that's a fair and pertinent question. And, in fact, we are treating all these non-conforming stores in any neighborhood across the city the exact same way. And there are some places in different pockets where folks will actually be very sorry to see some of these liquor outlets have to convert to different types of merchandise or perhaps choose to move to another location.
STOSURBut we have to treat everyone equal protection under the law in the same situation exactly the same way. So there happen to be more of these non-conforming liquor stores in what would probably be characterized as some of the more challenged, low-income neighborhood. So that's where the heavy concentration is. But we treat them the same way across the city.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on Baltimore zoning makeover with Thom Stosur, planning director of the city of Baltimore. But if you have questions or comments, you can still call us at 800-433-8850. How would you feel about taller buildings and more of them in the heart of downtown Baltimore? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Thom Stosur, planning director for the city of Baltimore. We're talking about Baltimore's long-awaited zoning makeover. Thom Stosur, in the last couple of decades, a lot of high-rise condo buildings have gone up along the waterfront. And that's raised concerns about the ongoing viability of the Port of Baltimore. How will this new plan attempt to halt the encroachment and preserve the port as an economic engine for the city?
STOSURYeah, the port is extremely important for the city of Baltimore. It's had a tremendous growth and job generation of the city, and it's had its best years ever in the past couple. And we see even more possibility for that kind of growth to continue and expand with the opening and widening of the Panama Canal, offering some of the biggest ships direct access to the East Coast.
STOSURAnd Baltimore is one of only handful of ports that's prepared to accept those ships. So it is vitally important that we keep that shipping channel and shipping operations protected so that the -- both the state and all the manufacturing and shipping operators feel comfortable investing for the long term in the newest technologies.
STOSURSo we have created a new basis zone called the Maritime Industrial District, and it prevents anything accept shipping and shipping-related industry from relocating on a fairly broad swath of the harbor waterfront in perpetuity so that that shipping can flourish there over the next decades. And, you know, it is a balancing act because water is a tremendous real estate boon, and folks are attracted, developers are attracted to build lots of density and mixed uses.
STOSURAnd believe me, the tax base of Baltimore needs that kind of development as well. But we know we could compromise the long-term success of what's a really great economic engine for us if we don't provide that protection to the port.
NNAMDIThe downtown area is also surrounded by historic districts. What kinds of protections does the new plan offer for those areas?
STOSURWell, there's already layers of protection through the local, historic district designations. So anything that happens on any of the properties in a local historic district like Federal Hill or Fells Point would be required to go through our CHAP process, which is the Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation. But we have...
NNAMDINow, allow me to interrupt you there for one second because we have a specific question about Fells Point from Andrea in Columbia. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANDREAHi. Yes. My question is about Fells Point. My family and I took a ride around the Inner Harbor on the boat that goes from spot to spot and got off at Fells Point. And I was particularly disappointed in how kind of grungy and grimy the Broadway section is up from the boat stop up for a few blocks. Looks like the street hasn't been paved in 25, 30 years.
ANDREAI went to Hopkins, and it kind of looks like, you know, it's pretty much the way it was quite a few years ago. Lots of potholes, the sidewalks are, you know, looks like -- look like they could use a power washing or something. What is the plan to kind of spruce up the Broadway drag, in particular?
STOSURSure. Yeah. That's -- it's not directly related to zoning, but I'm happy to let your listeners know that there are specific plans to completely redo the Broadway Square which is right Thames Street, just north of the water up for the full initial block. And that will be a complete -- rip it out and put back in a brand new plaza with an interactive fountain feature, new tree plantings, get rid of some of the not so attractive parts of the plaza that were added in the 1970s and out of character with the historic district, probably some new kiosks.
STOSURAnd there would be a substantial repaving of the streets around there as well as part of that package. We're going through the design review on that right now. So I'm hoping we could actually see construction starting next spring.
NNAMDIOK. Thank you very much for your call, Andrea. But, Thom Stosur, I interrupted you when you were talking about the plans to protect historic districts.
STOSURSure. In general, what we've done in this new code is to make sure that we are mapping the districts to what's exactly on the ground, and that's very important because if you have certain lot size requirements or height limitations that a district has and there are undeveloped parcels in that district and the rest of the district, maybe doesn't -- is a little bit lower scale than what base zoning allows, well, someone who decides they want to develop that undeveloped parcel can build to the full zoning allowed to it.
STOSURSo we are making sure the zoning district matches up with what's on the ground, so anything that would be built would be in general scale and character. And even more importantly, we are adding specific design standards so that we can get compatible setbacks from the street features such as cornices or porches or something like that. We're not dictating exactly how it should look, but the scale of it needs to be compatible. And then if the historic districts themselves have that added and more intensive layer of design reviews so they're well-protected.
NNAMDIWell, on the one hand, we talked about getting liquor stores out of residential neighborhoods. On the other, this plan would allow some corner row houses in residential neighborhoods to be used for things like cafes, galleries and small-scale businesses. What's the goal there?
STOSURWell, I think what we're trying to do is really embrace the urban character of the city in a way that our last zoning code 40 years ago was trying to run away from.
STOSURAnd a lot of what's great about an urban city district is mixed use and walkability. So we are proposing that if a building in a residential neighborhood was originally built for a non-residential use -- so that's pretty broad -- it could go from a corner store front that's attached to a row of regular houses to some of these odd industrial warehouse-type buildings that are scattered throughout East and West Baltimore.
STOSURAnd even to things like church buildings that maybe are -- you have a, you know, a really charming 100-year-old church structure with no parking and there isn't really an ability to use it as a place of worship, rather than have it go vacant, we'd like to allow a low-impact use like offices or a cafe to go in there, renovate it and be an amenity for the neighborhood. And it would -- that would require a zoning board approval which is that four-to-six-week process.
STOSURBut we wanted to try to strip some of the layers away, and The Baltimore Sun featured such an instance in its article on the zoning code last week. And so convert a church to an office in the Hamden neighborhood took a major year-long city council process versus this four to six-week zoning board approval process we're proposing.
NNAMDIWell, let's see if that can help Rebecca in Washington with her plans. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAYes. I am selling my home in the District and moving to Baltimore in -- on Nov. 30.
REBECCAThank you. And I purchased a home there, and my home has the potential for me to develop an office. I am a licensed clinical social worker and would like to do therapy out of my home. I've been watching this very closely, and it's hard for me to kind of get a sense of what's required for me to be able to do that type of thing. I am already licensed in Maryland, but I just -- I'm not clear of the steps and how your plan has gone and relate to folks like us.
STOSUROK. Yeah, I think there should be options for you either as a home occupation depending on the intensity of visits that would happen to your office use. I don't know what your new zoning category or, you know, exactly where your property is, but generically speaking, if your property was originally built for a non-residential use and you were converting it to an office and a residence kind of set up, you would have to go through the zoning board process.
STOSURBut if you're in a regular residential unit and you do have an office use you want to propose, there are certain standards for a home occupation. And I'd actually suggest maybe we -- I could get your information offline, and I could follow up more specifically on your situation.
NNAMDIBefore you go, Rebecca, we got a tweet here from a VGray saying, Rebecca, can what we do to keep you here? No, that's not true. I'm going to put you on hold so that you can pass your information on, and we can pass it on to Thom Stosur after the broadcast is over. We can go now to Rick in Alexandria, Va. Rick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RICKHi. I have quite a bit of experience living in and working in Baltimore. And one of the charming things about Baltimore is that it's not homogenized. I understand that cities need a plan, and zoning is part of that plan. But holy cow, liquor stores? Some of these liquor stores have been there for generations. And if you're going to legislate, I don't know, knife, I think that you're going to need to compensate these business owners in some way.
RICKPeople have been making a living for generations out of these liquor stores. It's what they do. It's how they put food on the table. And it seems preposterous to just walk in and say, you can't be here anymore. And my final comment is keep Fells Point grungy.
NNAMDIThat's your final one, Rick? Would you like it to stay that way? Is that what you're saying, keep Fells Point grungy?
RICKI like Fells Point. I like the cobblestones.
NNAMDIHey, Thom Stosur, some people feel that city deserves a little bit of grit and grunge.
STOSURI think Baltimore has plenty of that, and believe me, we're not intending in any way to whitewash places like Fells Point that have terrific character. We love that variety, and we're actually created a special zoning district for Fells Point called the c1 entertainment, and it's one of the few places where applying it initially and that is, we know there's lots of bars, lots of music there and that's exactly how we'd like to keep it. So…
NNAMDIIndeed, one of this plan's goals is to encourage more live music and entertainment in Baltimore. You may continue talking about how you think this plan can do that.
STOSURSure. We are wrapping in to this new code, a pretty extensive newer provision where we amended the current code related to live entertainment. And we opened up the categories where that was allowed and, again, are going through the conditional use procedure with an appeal to the zoning board if a place wants to do live entertainment as well as outdoor seating. That was something that, you know, maybe five, six years ago wasn't so prevalent. And in some ways, our current code made it really hard. We want to encourage that kind of bring the activity out on the street.
STOSURYou know, as long as it meets some basic standards, you still have a 6-foot sidewalk to walk by, we'd love to see outdoor tables that folks can enjoy the ambiance of the city.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Nikka, (sp?) who says, "It seems that many cities are starting to move towards mixed-use zoning. To what degree is Baltimore working to integrate neighborhoods so that people have the option to live closer to their work?"
STOSURThat's a big piece of what we're trying to do with these -- the provision we call the neighborhood commercial establishment that takes the nonresidential buildings in residential zones and allows offices or cafes to -- or galleries to be established, as well as those IMU, industrial mixed-use provisions. So, in the same building, we can have everything from an artisan or craft, workshop to offices, to residences and retail as well.
NNAMDIWhy does this plan ban new surface parking lots downtown, and what will be the rules for the existing surface parking lots?
STOSURSure. That's another piece of the puzzle about how we want to make downtown, for the long term, a more attractive, vital place that is going to really be a population center for the city. We've seen a lot of the office buildings, the newer ones, migrate towards Inner Harbor East and the waterfront, and it's leaving some of the older central business district buildings less occupied.
STOSURAnd, frankly, if they're 50, 60, 80 years old, they're probably not up to the standard of a class A office building that you could build new. They may be very ripe for more conversion to residential, and we'd love to see that. With the parking lots particularly, we do not feel that knocking down existing buildings downtown for what turns out to be speculative development and, as a so-called temporary use, have a surface parking lot, that that is a very great benefit to the vitality and attractiveness of the city.
STOSURWe've built dozens and dozens of parking garages in the city, both public and private. There seems to be plenty of parking spaces available. And those so-called temporary lots in very prominent places right next to the -- on Pratt Street and Light Street -- the old McCormick site, the old News-American site -- they were temporarily established parking lots that have been there for decades and haven't been developed.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, so what's the time line, Tom Stosur, for approval of the new zoning law, and what opportunities are residents going to have to share their opinions?
STOSURSure. I'm glad you asked that, and I've been amiss -- remiss not to mention the website that folks can go to for all sorts of resources and hearing schedules and everything else related to the zoning code. It's www.rewritebaltimore.org, and we urge you to go there to get the latest schedules. We are launching our formal planning commission public hearings on Thursday, Nov. 29, at 6 p.m., at the War Memorial Building downtown.
STOSURDoors will open at 5:00 so that we'll have staff there, and folks can come in and have their questions and concerns addressed one on one with zoning maps there and regulations as a prelude to the formal public hearing that starts at 6:00 where the planning commission will take testimony. And then we have another public hearing Thursday, Dec. 13, at 6:00, and that's at the Baltimore City Community College Liberty Campus, 2901 Liberty Heights Avenue. Doors open at 5:00 for that one as well.
NNAMDITom Stosur, thank you for joining us.
STOSURIt's been my pleasure.
NNAMDITom Stosur is planning director of the city of Baltimore. We're going to take a short break. But when we come back, it'll be your turn to weigh in on the Maryland move to the Big Ten. Is it over? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Or you can talk about Wilson High School not being allowed to participate in the Turkey Bowl because one of its players was living in Maryland and so would have to forfeit victories and is now no longer in the Turkey Bowl. Was that fair as far as you're concerned? 800-433-8850. It's Your Turn when we come back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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