On February 13 of this year, the Planning Commission presented to the Cambridge City Council proposed Ordinance No. 1212, which would amend the Unified Development Code to delete certain language that prevented a developer from turning the Mill Street School building into rental apartments. According to the commission, these amendments were “necessary to protect and promote the public health, safety, and welfare.” This appeared benign enough on the page, but the proposition managed to create a minor uproar in the Historic District.
“You’ve got a school sitting in a residential district that’s supposed to be single-family, detached houses,” said Rick Klepfer of Choptank Avenue recently. “That’s a problem.”
After the school closed for good in the late 1990s, the city decided it should be used for a different purpose, and the property was approved for multi-family development with the provisions in the city’s 2003 Zoning Ordinance using the Planned Unit Development criteria. Then several applications were submitted to the Planning Commission, one of which was heard by the City Council in September 2013. The proposal received a conditional approval, but the final plan was never completed.
In December 2014, Cambridge adopted the Unified Development Code, and the area around Mill Street was designated a Neighborhood Conservation 3 Zone, which allowed single-family homes. But the school was still there, so the decision was made to create a special overlay district just for that property.
“I don’t think anyone was particularly in favor of the overlay zone putting in there,” explained Klepfer, “but it was approved anyway, and we said, ‘Okay, this is fine.’ There was a document put out by [City Planner] Pat Escher describing what the limitations of it were. What they developed was a way that you could convert the school to apartments, but at some point they had to become condominiums.”
History of the School Building
There were at least two more development submissions for the property between 2019 and 2021, but they did not reach a successful conclusion. During one of those later attempts, the city asked the Historic Preservation Commission for an architectural review to determine the significance of the schoolhouse. On May 28, 2019, HPC Chairperson George Vojtech began by reading a document relating the property’s history.
In 1902, Dorchester County’s public high school for boys burned down, and a new building was constructed by J. Benjamin Brown, a prolific local architect and former mayor. It was called Cambridge Academy and served as an elementary school that was attended by prominent individuals, including future Maryland governors. The building was sold in 1974 and became the private Golden Shore Christian Academy until the late 1990s.
After relating the history, Vojtech read into the record a June 17 letter from architectural historian Paul B. Touart, who had authored the property’s Maryland Historical Trust inventory form in 2010. In his letter, Touart stated that the school building was “a contributing resource to the historic nature of Mill Street and the larger district.” He defined a contributing site as one that “embodies the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction or that represents the work of a master, or that possesses high artistic value.”
Thus, the HPC unanimously voted in favor of a determination that the school and property were historically significant. Then, a succession of neighborhood residents announced their agreement with the vote. But, as Klepfer put it recently, even a building on the National Historic Register can be demolished.
“I think basically most of the neighbors at this point would be happy if they tore the school down and put five or so decent houses there,” he admitted.
Enter Bret Davis
The head of Davis Strategic Development LLC in Salisbury presented his application for eight dwelling units in the school building and four duplexes behind it to the Planning Commission on August 2, 2022. HPC reviewed the renovation plan in October and reported favorably. A Planning and Zoning Staff Report was drafted on the following February 7, after which the Planning Commission listened to a number of remaining concerns, including a letter of outright opposition from the Cambridge Association of Neighborhoods.
CAN, led by President Chuck McFadden, asked the City Council to reject Ordinance 1212 for several reasons. Among them was the fact that Davis had purchased the schoolhouse property with full knowledge of the requirement to establish a condominium regime but was insisting on the right to create rental apartments that would remain that way forever. According to CAN, Cambridge was in need of purchasable condo units that were not part of a waterfront development because they would “provide for entry level ownership opportunities, as well as affordable units for elderly citizens that may want to downsize from larger homes in the community.”
At the March 13 City Council meeting, where the second reading of the proposed ordinance was held, many locals stood up to oppose it. Speaking as a resident of the West End Historic District and a CAN board member, Klepfer said that Davis wanted the ordinance to favor him while he had made no efforts with the community. Pete Doyle of Choptank Avenue stated that the Planning Commission had broken the agreements between the developers, residents, and city, and that the residents felt like they were kept in the dark during the process. Cheryl Hannan of Mill Street said Davis had no ties to the community and hadn’t carried out any commitment to the citizens.
Ultimately, the Council voted unanimously against the ordinance. However, according to City Planner Pat Escher, Davis still intends to develop the school building.