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'No Apartments, No Compromise': Baltimore-Area Developers Navigate Neighborhood Pushback

When developer Mark Renbaum first proposed a roughly $225M overhaul of the Lutherville Station retail center in Baltimore County, he said he thought he was pursuing a plan benefiting all the area’s stakeholders.

Lutherville Station LLC wants to build a transit-oriented development at the Lutherville Station Shopping Center.

His plans for the site call for 400 apartment units and office space next to a light rail station. It is a dense development near a mass transit hub that doesn’t add to suburban sprawl, precisely the kind of building Maryland and Baltimore County’s planning and transportation agencies encourage. 

"Anything less than a redevelopment on this scale would be a missed opportunity forever regretted — and felt by the Greater Baltimore region," Renbaum, who is leading the project through the entity Lutherville Station LLC,  said in a statement.

Yet nearby neighborhood associations including the Lutherville Community Association and the Greater Timonium Community Council oppose his plans for Lutherville Station and are pressuring elected officials to withhold the support that Renbaum needs to build the project. 

Some residents have protested the project while holding signs reading "No apartments, no compromise," the Baltimore Banner reported

“My personal opinion is Mark Renbaum is a good guy, but what he’s proposing is just too dense,” Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, told Bisnow

The dust-up over Lutherville Station’s future is just one of a series of recent conflicts between residents and builders over projects that appear to be aligned with the development goals of local and state governments. Those conflicts, developers said, can end up costing substantial amounts of money, forcing them to make cuts in building costs. 

“Neighborhoods get better projects if they don’t do stuff like that,” Caves Valley Partners partner Arsh Mirmiran said about protracted battles with community groups.   

In Anne Arundel County, residents living nearby Quiet Waters Park are fighting to stop the Chesapeake Conservancy from constructing an office building. 

“We call upon Anne Arundel County’s politicians to fulfill their commitment to Quiet Waters Park and the bay by not allowing new construction of a private office building in the county’s most-prized, popular and beloved public park,” Anastasia Hopkinson, vice president of the Annapolis Neck Peninsula Federation, wrote in a column last week in the Capital Gazette.

The office building is slated for a portion of a 19-acre parcel of land added to the park roughly two years ago. The purchase of the property, formerly planned for residential development, was made possible through a private $2M donation via the Chesapeake Conservancy. 

The county and conservancy made the deal knowing the nonprofit’s intention to build the two-story Earl Conservation Center on the property. Last March, the county council passed a bill — at the behest of County Executive Steuart Pittman — leasing the land to a subsidiary of the conservancy for $1 per year for 30 years. 

It is not only suburban neighborhoods where community members are at odds with developers pursuing projects that are encouraged by local policies.  

In Baltimore, a property next to the Woodberry light rail stop has been at the center of a fight over transit-oriented development in that community since 2018.  

Baltimore's Woodberry light rail stop, where a nearby property has been at the center of a contentious development fight for years.

Roughly five years ago, ValStone Partners purchased the Clipper Mill properties surrounding the Woodberry stop. The developer proposed building new apartments, offices and retail space in the north Baltimore community off Interstate 83 along the Jones Falls.

However, ValStone wanted to repeal the Planned Unit Development zoning overlay limiting building on the site. By repealing the zoning overlay, the site would have been governed by city zoning, which promotes transit-oriented development.  

Eventually, the vitriol between the community and developers became so heated that ValStone sued residents for $25M, a lawsuit that a Baltimore judge eventually dismissed in December 2020. 

Roughly six months later, ValStone decided to cut its losses and sold a portion of the property and development rights to a subsidiary of MCB Real Estate

At the time of the purchase, MCB Real Estate’s P. David Bramble told the Baltimore Business Journal he wanted to ease tensions with the community over building proposals. At the same time, Bramble said his company wanted to acquire the property partly because of its proximity to mass transit. 

"We are a collaborator, and we will sit down and talk to everybody," Bramble told the newspaper.       

Developers who have successfully navigated contentious relationships with residents said they are most successful when approaching community groups early. Those developers said they often begin conversations with communities before purchasing a property.  

Thibault Manekin, the co-founder of Seawall Development, has navigated several potentially tricky situations where residents were suspicious of development. Among the toughest projects Seawall handled was the redevelopment of Baltimore’s historic Lexington Market

To build a new market building, Seawall’s team negotiated thorny issues of race and class while assembling a plan for a new market building that residents from all walks of life would find welcoming. 

In 2018, when Seawall took on that project, Manekin said, his team told the city they needed at least nine months to meet with community groups before making concrete proposals for a new building. During that time, he said Seawall met with communities from across the city. In each case, he and others emphasized they were there to have a conversation about the market’s future. 

"We started every meeting with a question: 'What would it take for you to fall in love with Lexington Market again?'" Manekin said.

Now, Seawall and the city are preparing to host a ribbon-cutting for a new market building later this month.   

Mirmiran, of Caves Valley Partners, said one of the first things he does in the development process is gauge the potential for community opposition. If a community is receptive and willing to work with him, Mirmiran said, he has no problem collaborating and compromising with neighbors. 

Previous experiences, such as the drawn-out fight over his proposal to develop 1111 Light St., have taught him he would rather not invest that time and energy in a long, drawn-out battle with the community. 

On his most recent project, the redevelopment of Cross Keys, Mirmiran made sure surrounding communities were on board with the vision for the property before buying it from its previous owners.

“If it’s going to be a huge battle, it’s kind of not worth doing. I just don’t have any interest in dealing with it,” he said. 

Yet, approaching a community early and often about a project doesn’t guarantee success. Renbaum said he first approached community associations with a stake in Lutherville Station nearly two years before he purchased the property in 2020.

A site plan showing the plans for the Lutherville Station redevelopment.

That tact helped him win support from some community members like Allen Hicks, a former Lutherville Community Association president and current president of the Friends of Roland Run.

There are still details that need negotiating, Hicks said, but he said the community should try to hammer out a deal with Renbaum. Hicks said residents can secure compromises through a Planned Unit Development that governs building on the site and sets in place Renbaum’s obligations to the community.  

"The Friends of Roland Run has not endorsed any 400 [unit] apartment complex," Hicks said. "What we’ve endorsed is a conversation with the developer under the auspices of the PUD." 

However, Renbaum and his allies face a severe challenge in trying to convince residents who have adopted “no apartments, no compromise” as a slogan to come to the table. 

"We understand that it is not easy to go against the established grain in the name of smart policy that will define the county for generations to come. But, that is the legacy of this project, and it requires leadership,” Renbaum said.