Zoning rewrite: Formstone stays while Mr. Boh prays

Written by on March 13, 2013 in Featured, Neighborhood News - No comments

Baltimore’s love affair with artificial masonry can continue, but its fling with the Natty Boh sign could be on slightly shakier ground.

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The Baltimore City Planning Department’s latest public hearing on the city’s omnibus zoning rewrite was last Thursday.

After several comments and requests, the department decided not to outlaw faux masonry on new construction. Formstone was widely popular in the 1950s and 60s, and still seen on the faces of some row houses particularly in east Baltimore.

Formstone’s proposed ban was among 300 questions, comments, changes, and concerns from residents and businesses that the department addressed at its public hearing on March 7.

The Natty Boh Tower sign at Brewer’s Hill and other structures in east Baltimore were among those discussed.

One key concern at the hearing is that some lawfully-built, currently allowed, or currently conforming structures may become non-conforming if the draft rewrite passes in its current form.

“There is an inherent unfairness about a structure being conforming one day, and non-conforming the next,” said Gillis Green, an attorney representing Wells Obrecht, developer of Brewers Hill’s Natty Boh Tower at 3600 O’Donnell St.

Non-conformity does not necessarily mean a structure has to change or is in jeopardy, but non-conforming status can have wider impact. It can make lenders more cautious, according to Green, who specializes in commercial real estate.

“Lenders do not like non-conforming uses. It’s more risk. When a bank loans money, they want to know that if there is a casualty, a building can be rebuilt as it is. Lenders like perfect,” Green said.

As for the Natty Boh sign, Green asked the planning department to grandfather in the landmark sign so it can have conforming use under the proposed zoning rewrite.

While a landmark, and certainly iconic, Green said the sign wouldn’t qualify for “classic” sign status under the new zoning draft, which allows potentially non-conforming signs that meet criteria for “classic” to apply and become conforming. One criterium is age; to qualify, the sign must be at least 20 years old.

“It’s only about a decade old,” said Green.

The Planning Department’s preliminary recommendation on the Natty Boh sign was not to grandfather it in.

“The classic sign provision is for signs older than 20 years, so it would not qualify.  It’s not an old sign; it’s not original. So it is a problem,” said Laurie Feinberg, Division Chief of the Baltimore City Planning Department.

But Feinberg doesn’t see it as a serious one.

“It is really much ado about nothing, since the issue would only come up if for some reason the sign was destroyed,” she said.

That is precisely Green’s concern.

“If a conforming structure burns down, you have the right to rebuild it. If a non-conforming structure is destroyed, you wouldn’t have that right. You’d have to obtain it,” Green said.

Feinberg noted that, as part of a Planned Unit Development, the sign is technically not conforming even now.

“This adopted master plan can stay as long as the owner wants. The only issue would come up [is if] they choose to remove the PUD because the new zoning is better for them, and if the sign were destroyed,” Feinberg explained.

“A lot of ifs here,” she added.

She said that while the department’s initial recommendation on the grandfathering request was no, the department is still working on the matter.

“We will continue to look at options for them,” she said.

As for Formstone, it will no longer be on the list of prohibited building materials, such as vinyl siding, for new construction in the zoning rewrite.

“We got a lot of comments asking that it be allowed,” said Feinberg.

The allowance, however, may be more symbolic than practical.

Said Feinberg: “It’s pretty much a moot point. I don’t think you can even purchase Formstone anymore anyway.”

by Danielle Sweeney

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