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Historic Hendler Creamery overhaul halts without explanation.

Byline: Adam Bednar

Work transforming the historic Hendler Creamery in east Baltimore into a $45 million mixed-use project stopped weeks ago with no explanation from the developer.

Lawmakers who represent the area and stakeholders in the Jonestown neighborhood said they've not recently heard from Commercial Development, which is part of Commercial Group Inc. The Hanover-based company's roots go back to 1990, when it started as a drywall contractor. Since its founding the firm has expanded to include general contracting and real estate development.

Commercial Development, based on its portfolio listed online, has not served as lead developer on a project the size and magnitude of the creamery overhaul. Calls to the company seeking comment were not returned. President and CEO of Commercial Group Inc. Kevin Johnson, however, previously has expressed a willingness to take chances.

"The majority of developers tend to follow a trend not necessarily make a trend or make a mark and we need more people willing to do that, to take a risk," Johnson said in 2015 after investing $3 million in a market-rate apartment building in west Baltimore.

Commercial Development, starting in early 2018, demolished most of the structures on the site in the 1100 block of East Fayette Street to clear the way for the redevelopment. The dilapidated former Volunteers of America building at 1101 E. Fayette St. was razed. Large steel braces were put in place to support the facade of the century-old historic creamery building.

After more than a year working on the project crews vanishedthis spring, leaving tools, building supplies and debris scattered on the fenced-in site. Behind the fence adorned with a Commercial Development banner along East Fayette Street, a brown True Temper Wheelbarrow, resting bucket down and surrounded by pallets of bricks still wrapped in plastic, sat unmoved Friday, as it hassince at least April. Weeds, large steel beams and other debris from demolition litter the site.

Work stoppages are not uncommon on large developments. Depending on the reason for a halt in construction halted and market conditions, it can take months or years to restart a stalled project.

Community leaders have hoped that redeveloping the old Hendler Creamery building would help tie together a series of new investments in the Jonestown neighborhood.Despite the community's historic nature and attractions like the Phoenix Shot Tower and the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, Jonestown isn't as well known as other city neighborhoods, boosters acknowledge. Groups like Historic Jonestown Inc. have tried to expand the community's profile and attract new investment.

Helping Up Mission wants to raise roughly $61 million to transform the old Seafarer's International Union Hall at 1216 E. Baltimore St. into a center for women struggling with homelessness and substance abuse and their children. The National Aquarium last year opened its $20 million Animal Care and Rescue Center at 901 E. Fayette St. after moving those operations from a warehouse in Fells Point.

Ronald McDonald Charities of Maryland this year opened its new $30 million Ronald McDonald House. The facility provides a comfortable place to stay for serious ill children and their parents while the youngsters are seeking medical treatment. The new property, adorned with a giant red heart, sits across Aisquith Street from the Hendler Creamery property.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson attended the ceremonial opening of the Ronald McDonald House on Tuesday evening. While he said he has not been updated on the Hendler project in more than a year, conversations Ferguson had at the opening ceremony left him with theimpression work wouldn't be delayed at the Hendler Creamery site much longer.

"There was a feeling things would start moving again (soon)," Ferguson said.

Marvin Pinkert, Jewish Museum of Maryland's executive director and Historic Jonestown Inc. board member, said organizations working to bolster Jonestown have expressed some concern but remain hopeful the Hendler Creamery property will be redeveloped.

"It would be in everyone's best interest to have the property redeveloped and redeveloped properly," Pinkert said.

The last contact Pinkert said he'd had with anyone associated with Commercial Development came in the form of an email.

Keith Barker, who was overseeing the project for Commercial Development, sent a message on April 5 to several stakeholders informing them he'd left the firm to join Rethink Community and Seavest as vice president of real estate development.

In the email Barker said he'd left Commercial Development four weeks prior to sending the message. A photo of Barker is still prominently feared on the Commercial Group Inc.'s website

"I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned from the last seven years at Commercial Development and will miss the folks at the company as well as the many relationships formed throughout the years with the partners I was blessed to work with," wrote Barker, who could not be reached for comment.

Work stalling on a large development projects is not unusual. Reasons for work stopping on a project range from a developer struggling to secure financing todiscovering an unexpected environmental hazard requiring expensive remediation.

Commercial Development has mostly invested in projects like the Railway Express-Lofts near Penn Station and 414 Water Street Condominiums downtown. The company in 2015 delivered a 44-unit luxury apartment building at 3915 Liberty Heights Ave.

While the company's construction arm has been involved in large municipal projects, Commercial Development's portfolio does not include a project where it served as the lead developer of the scale and ambition of what's proposed at the Hendler Creamery site.

Details posted by architect Design Collective on its website place the Hendler Creamery project cost at $45 million. Plans for the site involve a six-story building, with 276 apartments and 11,000 square feet of ground-level retail.

Hendler Creamery LLC paid the city $186,001 for the property in 2017, records show. Hendler Creamery LLC also purchased at least three other properties that were combined to create the redevelopment site.

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Publication:Daily Record (Baltimore, MD)
Date:May 17, 2019
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