Hopkins area lacks zoning to deal with student flood

May 16, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

Traffic just came to a stop. It looked as if every rental truck and station wagon in the Middle Atlantic region had converged in North Baltimore.

This scene was the afternoon of Friday, May 13, the day when Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus undergraduates had to vacate the dorms. Gray-haired daddies were hauling out crates and cartons of belongings of their sons and daughters.

Student presence in upper Charles Village is very much a reality. All along Charles, St. Paul and Calvert streets, Guilford and Abell avenues and University Parkway is a thriving student neighborhood. Anyone who is skeptical of this should visit that part of town in mid-July or early August. It's unnaturally quiet.

Housing so many students in the old North Baltimore apartment houses has created an interesting situation. Here is a large, built-in population of transient residents -- a student village -- without a well-defined central commercial marketplace.

The surrounding non-transient neighborhoods (Tuscany Canterbury, Oakenshawe, Guilford, Abell, Remington and especially Charles Village) seem to coexist fairly peacefully with the students despite running disputes over fraternities, noise and the unruly behavior associated with student life. But the university provides a great deal of stability and economic good for all the surrounding neighborhoods.

The existing village center of this student land is the 3100 block of St. Paul St. The west side of this block is composed of two privately owned apartment houses, the Wyman Towers and the St. Paul Court. The east side of the street was once rowhouses and a drug store.

There was a zoning battle in the 1920s that permitted stores to open in this single block. It now contains a grocery, dry cleaner, delicatessen, florist, a couple of restaurants, a liquor store and a sundries shop. There are a few other shops scattered in the basements of the apartment houses.

It's a hemmed-in student shopping district, one that is also heavily used by permanent residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. Though clean and usually safe, this business district is rather drab and not living up to the potential of its setting.

More than a few people have wondered why the Hopkins presence has not created a more lively student shopping and eating zone along St. Paul Street, a place that is fun, useful and an economic benefit to the city.

Blame history. For many years the apartment house neighborhood along upper Charles and St. Paul streets was home to some of the city's most influential residents. They were happy to live facing or near the university in huge Woodrow Wilson-era apartments that had their own public dining rooms on the first floor.

You could live upstairs (with your own kitchen) but, if you chose, take your meals at the common dining room. Parking was not too much of an issue. Three streetcar lines served St. Paul Street below 31st. There was transit service downtown every three minutes.

These older conservative people did not want a shopping center (student or otherwise) at their doors. All they required was a grocery, dry cleaners and a few pharmacies -- low-visibility, modest businesses. That is basically what has survived today and it is not sufficient.

By the late 1960s it was apparent the demographics were going against the apartment residents. They were growing older and dying, while the baby boom was putting more students into the neighborhood. So today it's a student-heavy neighborhood being served by the protectivist zoning of the earlier era.

Not too often is zoning changed in residential neighborhoods. If anything, it is made more restrictive. But several merchants, as well as the Greater Homewood Community Corporation, are asking that St. Paul Street zoning be studied with the goal of opening up the 3200 block of that street for increased usage.

The goal is to make a true Hopkins marketplace, where merchants would have adequate space for wares and services geared to the reality of the neighborhood. There could be restaurants and stores that would be a credit to a neighborhood's student and year-round residents. A better setting would bring increased competition and more opportunities.

The student reality is there. Why not accommodate it?

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