Monthly Archives: November 2011

Restoring an Historic House on a Small Street in Baltimore

Ever wonder what it takes to restore an historic house? How about an historic house on a small street? Even better, right? This video from the Dominion Group, whose motto is “Building a better Baltimore, one house at a time,” explains how they rehabilitated this adorable house on Lemmon Street in the Hollins Market/Union Square neighborhood of West Baltimore. Investors take note—it’s making them money!

note: if you don’t care much for the numbers and just want to see the physical transformation, skip ahead to 4:25.

Old and New Small Streets in Baltimore: Legal?

Last week in the comments, Marc asked about restrictions on small streets in Baltimore other than the solar panel regulations. We define small streets as streets less than 30 feet from building to building. If you live in the United States, you probably don’t have to look beyond your window to see that most of what we’ve built is much larger. Baltimore has many historic small streets that have survived well over 100 years, but would it be legal to reconstruct these small streets?

Let’s take a look at Baltimore, and use the example of this beautiful house for sale on South Chapel Street in the Upper Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore.

Small streets are usually lined with small rowhouses, so the first way that cities can make traditional small street form illegal is to set a minimum to how small your house’s lot can be. In Baltimore’s dense rowhouse neighborhoods, both the current and proposed zoning codes set a minimum of 750 square feet. This cute house’s lot measures 15’ by 50’, which is exactly 750 square feet. Test passed.

329 South Chapel StreetThe next regulation that trips up small streets is minimum lot coverage, which says how much of the lot can be covered by the house versus a garden, patio, or yard. Baltimore’s current zoning says your small street house can only cover 60% of the lot. However, the proposed code says you can cover 80%. A look at the house from above shows it has been expanded over the years and now covers almost the entire lot. Test failed.

It’s not easy to find a house instead that passes the lot coverage test but fails the minimum lot size test. Take the example of this small house for sale near Patterson Park. It covers less than 80% of the lot, but its lot is only 600 square feet in size.

Neither of these houses could be built on an empty lot in Baltimore because they both violate the zoning code. We at Small Streets believe that the proposed zoning code for Baltimore is definitely an improvement. However, the fact that some of Baltimore’s historic small houses in successful neighborhoods do not fit the code tell us that perhaps it needs some additional tweaking.

OK, so that explains the houses. But what about the streets themselves? You cannot legally construct a new small street in Baltimore. The subdivision regulations enacted in January 2011 require that new lots front on a street at least 40 feet wide. If you hoped to construct a compact new neighborhood of small streets near transit on the brownfields at the proposed Canton Crossing station on the Red Line, you would need an exception.

Small Streets and Solar Panels

Baltimore, along with Boston and Philadelphia, boasts some of the finest small streets in the United States. The neighborhoods of Fells Point, Federal Hill, Butchers Hill, Hollins Market, Old Goucher (and more) have preserved many charming blocks of small houses on these peaceful streets. The small streets and houses remain in spite of modern zoning codes, which have contributed to the destruction of small streets in many other American cities.

Baltimore is currently undergoing its first major rewrite of the city zoning code in 40 years, and it wants to incorporate environmental sustainability directly into the code. One way the zoning code can advance these aims is to establish clear regulations for owners of homes and businesses to install solar panels on their roofs.

The first draft of the Baltimore Zoning Code caught our attention because it actually proposed extra restrictions on small streets. Homeowners with flat roofs on main streets could place their solar panels 8 feet from the front of the building, but homeowners on small streets had to place their solar panels 10 feet from the front of the building.

If the problem is the aesthetics of solar panels, then the provision makes little sense. When you walk down a small street, the narrowness of the street limits your line of sight and you actually see less of the roofs than you would on a wide street.

Hunter Street

2300 block Hunter Street, Baltimore. Image credit: Google Maps

Thankfully the drafters of the Baltimore Zoning Code realized their mistake and now the proposed rule in the second draft is that solar panels can be 6 feet from the front of flat-roofed buildings on streets both narrow and wide.

Small streets are actually the perfect places to generate renewable energy while preserving architectural beauty. We believe that it may be possible to allow residents of small streets to use even more space on their roofs to harness the power of the sun without making an impact on the beauty and character of Baltimore’s historic neighborhoods.