Maryland Book Exchange

In tonight’s work session, the Council discuss the latest revisions of Book Exchange development plan. The Planning Board will be holding a hearing on September 13, so this is the Council’s opportunity to comment on these revisions.

The Council first considered this detailed site plan back in Fall 2011, when it recommended disapproval of the proposed plan. This is a plan for a student housing development at for the current Maryland Book Exchange site, with 313 student housing units (about 1,000 beds) and over 14,000 feet of retail on the first floor. The Council’s concerns about the initial plan involved the massing and architecture of the development, a six-story building that covered almost the entire lot, leaving very little open space in a residential area surrounded by lower-density commercial development and residential buildings. The Council decided that the proposed development does not comply with the requirements of the Route One Sector Plan, which state that developments in this area that back into residential areas must have a step-down in height as the development approaches the residential area, and must also have an interesting and heterogenous architecture that is in proportion with the surrounding properties, which this development does not.

After the Planning Board recommended disapproval of the project, the developer came back in January of this year with slight revisions to the plan, replacing the top two floors toward the back of the development with a steep roof that was just as tall. The City again voted to recommend disapproval of the project, and although the Planning Board recommended approval of the project in February, the City appealed this decision to the District Council. Members of the Council expressed concern about the possibility of setting a precedent that the standards set forth in the Route One sector plan, which were developed over many meetings and discussions with City residents, wouldn’t be taken seriously.

On July 24, 2012, the District Council remanded the Detailed Site Plan to the Planning Commission and ordered the developer to address the “lack of appropriate consideration of a number of aspects of the 2010 Approved Central US 1 Corridor Sector Plan and Sectional Map Amendment, and required the developer to ensure an adequate transition by stepping down to three stories for a minimum depth of 50 feet approaching Yale Ave. The District Council also ordered that the developer make some changes regarding the architecture and massing of the project, including courtyards that allow light infiltration to all units.

The developer responded by making some changes to the building and submitting revised plans, perspective drawings, elevations, and sections. The revised plans do indicate a stepdown to three stories in the back, but there is a separate building behind the Yale Ave. elevation that does not carry the step-down to the 50 feet required by the District Council, and the three stories have a 58-foot tall sloping roof on top that continues to make the building greatly out of proportion with the surrounding neighborhood. The Old Town Historic Planning Commission still voted unanimously to recommend disapproval of the project based on continued concerns about the architecture of the building and compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood.

The Planning Commission staff now still recommends approval of the project, conditional on a more gradual stepdown on the North side of the project, incorporation of more traditional architectural elements, and clarification of some issues regarding plantings and lighting. City staff has provided comments that the developer has not adequately addressed the concerns of the District Council, in that the building continues to be one large, “architecturally incoherent,” mass that fills the entire site, the stepdown is not consistent, the layout of the interior units is “awkward,” and there is no true transition in density or intensity toward the residential neighborhood.

Staff also found that there are still a number of modern architectural elements – including large metal towers on the corners of the building – that are out of character with the neighborhood. Staff does not believe that the conditions suggested by the Planning Commission staff would address the fundamental problems with the development, and instead recommends dividing the development into two buildings, one which would face Route 1 and be six stories, and one which would be more oriented to Yale Ave. and be three and a half stories tall, with a 30-foot alleyway between the buildings.

Please let me know if you have any questions about this development or staff’s recommendation.