Hope and despair in Reservoir Hill

December 15, 1993

Early in this century, Reservoir Hill boasted some of Baltimore's most exclusive addresses. Mansions and substantial town houses lined Eutaw Street and Madison Avenue. Druid Hill Park, just north of the neighborhood, was so vast it resembled the countryside. Indeed, until 1945 a flock of 300 sheep roamed the park to keep its grass well manicured.

Blockbusting and white flight changed all that. Today, Reservoir Hill is a neighborhood of stark contrasts. Some blocks contain elaborately restored residences, while on other streets abandoned buildings give the area a bombed-out look. This deterioration has not helped the real estate market. Recently, a large mansion near the park, complete with a carriage house and wading pool, changed hands for a paltry $65,000 after failing to sell for a $200,000 asking price.

Adding to Reservoir Hill's problems has been uncertainty about the fate of the Renaissance Plaza apartment complex. Consisting of the 1912 Esplanade, the 1915 Emersonian and the 1926 Temple Gardens, that once-fashionable high-rise complex has been in state receivership since 1991.

The city recently gave the go-ahead to developer Israel Roizman's $35.4 million plan to rehab the three buildings. Eighty-four units would be rented at the market rate; 218 others would be earmarked for low-income tenants.

This plan was greeted by the towers' gentrified neighbors with considerable trepidation.

"We are a community facing a crisis," the Upper Eutaw/Madison Neighborhood Association declared in a letter to Gov. William Donald Schaefer earlier this year.

Those protesting neighbors have a valid point. Reservoir Hill already has an abundance of low-income rental apartments. A project that would have a greater mix of income levels would make the neighborhood's overall improvement easier. Yet at this point the Roizman concept seems to represent the only way that guarantees a quick recycling of the three derelict buildings into full occupancy.

Reservoir Hill has been allowed to deteriorate for too long. Now that work is starting on Renaissance Plaza, it should be accompanied by tougher code enforcement throughout the neighborhood. A crackdown on trash and drugs would make a dramatic difference. So would the city's plan to clean up the Whitelock Street business area through selective demolition. It's time to get moving on both those fronts.

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