For East Towson, a chance at renewal

January 06, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

The townhouses rising on the small, muddy construction site off Joppa Road east of central Towson may look ordinary, but for Towson's 140-year-old black community, they represent a chance at rejuvenation.

In all, 53 townhouses and condominiums called Harris Hill are being built. The hope is that young people who left East Towson because of economic pressures and a lack of new housing will return.

Priced between $75,500 and $88,000 for people with incomes under 80 percent of the federal median income and as high as $101,000 for higher-income buyers, the 1,100- and 1,200-square-foot homes will give young people a chance to live in their old neighborhood.

That, county officials and community leaders hope, will help strengthen and stabilize a neighborhood now populated mainly with older people living in a dwindling number of older houses.

Andrea D. Harrison, a 26-year-old employee of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in Greenbelt, is the kind of buyer the county hopes to attract. A single mother with one child, she once spent summers and holidays with her father in East Towson. Her grandmother and sister still live there.

"I can't wait to move in," she said. "Everybody knows everyone. It's the greatest thing. It's like a little country town, like a family."

Baltimore County helped the community once before. In 1982, the county used federal money to help build 29 subsidized apartments. But the Harris Hill homes are the first new units for sale in memory, an important distinction in a neighborhood where 85 percent of the homes have traditionally been owner-occupied.

Harold Rubin, a partner in the development, helped get the Harris Hill project started.

He discounted the price of his 2.2-acre site, which had been zoned for a high-rise building, by 60 percent. The property was valued at $2.2 million.

The county then provided $880,000 in federal block grant money to the East Towson Joint Venture to buy the land and added another $50,000 to help pay up to $2,500 of buyers' closing costs.

"This is our first big thrust in the affordable housing effort," Frank W. Welsh, county community development director, said.

All 17 townhouses are already sold, and 14 of the 36 condominiums are spoken for, said Ted Rouse, a partner in the building firm of Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse, contractors on the $5.1 million project.

So far, all but four of the buyers have incomes under 80 percent of the federal median income, Mr. Rouse said.

The 80 percent limit would be $31,000 for a family of two.

The first homes should be occupied in late February, according to sales agent Rachele Dannenberg. The whole project, which lies between Joppa Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, five blocks east of York Road, should be completed in May.

East Towson's roots run deep in Baltimore County. The community dates from the antebellum era.

Before his death in 1830, Capt. Charles Ridgely, owner of the Hampton Mansion, which still stands just north of the Goucher College campus, wrote in his will that his slaves should be gradually freed. They became the bulk of early settlers in Harris Hill.

In 1853, Daniel Harris, a free black man, became the first member of his race to buy land in the neighborhood.

Even under segregation's harsh limits, the community thrived. Ignored and snubbed for decades by white Towson, its residents turned inward and forged a close-knit relationship that survives today, despite the modern high-rise apartment houses, commercial and public buildings that surround the neighborhood and threaten its survival.

Shelley Hawkins, who was president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association when the Harris Hill project was first proposed, knows well the pressures that forced people out of the neighborhood. Her family left in 1972, when she was 11, and moved to Cockeysville. Fifteen years later, Mrs. Hawkins, her husband and their two children moved back to east Towson.

Their home, which they modernized, is owned by Laura Jones, Mrs. Hawkins' grandmother. She lives two doors away. Mrs. Hawkins, who has added two children to her family since returning to Harris Hill, is happy to be back.

"I wanted to raise my children in a strong, African-American community," she said.

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