How Baltimore’s New Zoning Code Can Reduce Vacants

Vacant buildings can be found all over Baltimore. This is especially true in our city’s most distressed communities. But vacants can even be found in neighborhoods viewed as desirable. The above photo was taken about a block away from CPHA’s offices in Hampden at the intersection of Keswick Road and 33rd St.

Part of the reason we see so many vacants is that for certain buildings, the zoning laws make it difficult to impossible for these properties to be developed. CPHA covered this topic recently when we discussed the many challenges faced by would be entrepreneurs trying to open up corner stores.  Dr. Peter Burkill’s blog about his attempt to open up a corner store in Remington just won a Best of Baltimore award from City Paper.

At one point corner stores were neighborhood fixtures, but by the 1970s they were viewed as undesirable. So when Baltimore rewrote its zoning code in the 1970s, the buildings where corner stores were located automatically switched to residential status.  Since these structures were designed to be for commercial rather than residential uses, they became vacant.

However, the city’s new zoning code contains a provision known as neighborhood commercial that allows for a limited number of commercial uses to be established in spaces that have historically been used for this purpose.  The uses are as follows:

  • Art galleries – No live entertainment or dancing
  • Arts Studios
  • Day care centers: Adult or child
  • Offices
  • Personal Services Establishments
  • Restaurants – No live entertainment or dancing
  • Retail Goods Establishments – No alcohol sales

The code also mandates that neighborhood commercial establishments be pedestrian oriented in nature and parking requirements to be waived for uses under 2,500 square feet. All uses are limited to a building’s interior.  To see neighborhood commercial as it is listed in the zoning code, click here and go to pages 44 and 227-228.

Neighborhood commercial is classified as a conditional use. This means that all requests to open a neighborhood commercial establishment must have hearings open to the public and be approved by the zoning board. The zoning board may also impose whatever conditions it sees fit on this business. Should the business fail to comply, the zoning designation can be revoked. If the use is discontinued for two years, the zoning designation automatically goes away and any future businesses wishing to use this space must once again go through the conditional use process.

The conditional use designation empowers community members to voice whatever concerns they have about the business to decision makers. If community members don’t want a certain business they can express this to zoning board.  At its core, the conditional use process is about giving residents a say as to what happens in their neighborhoods.

CPHA is aware of the damage certain businesses can do to a community. That’s why we’ve taken the lead when it comes to closing non-conforming liquor stores. But businesses can also be good for a community.  Neighborhood corner stores create walkable communities that help the city attract young people.  They also have the potential to provide fresh foods and other goods and services in communities where they are lacking.  From up and coming neighborhoods to some of our city’s most distressed communities, the neighborhood commercial designation will benefit a diverse range of city residents.

Baltimore’s new zoning code is about bringing our city into the 21st century.  CPHA believes the neighborhood commercial designation as currently written in the zoning code accomplishes this.  We’ll keep our readers updated on ways you can be involved to make neighborhood commercial a reality.

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Gregory Friedman

Gregory Friedman

This article was written by Gregory Friedman. Click here to meet our writing team.

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