Mound of earth marks defeat in battle of Cylburn

January 02, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

The battle is now over for control of a little stand of trees in Northwest Baltimore. The bulldozers have won out. Land for new houses has been plowed up along the 4900 block of Greenspring Avenue -- uncomfortably close to the entrance of the city's Cylburn Arboretum.

On a cold, leafless winter's day, the construction site looks as the people who fought the bulldozers had predicted -- barren, intrusive and nasty. But proponents of new houses annexed to the Coldspring Newtown neighborhood must be relieved, delighted that their little community will at last be enlarged by about 100 new addresses.

The damage is done, and it's worse than I'd feared. A city treasure's front door has been scarred and trashed. We just couldn't leave well enough alone. Whatever compromises were made are now buried under a mound of freshly turned earth.

At the heart of the debate is the proximity of the Cylburn Arboretum, a city-owned preserve of lawns, trees and wildlife. Cylburn, one of the least-known city greenswards, is a favorite haunt of bird-watchers, gardeners and hikers. It doesn't have any ball fields or swing sets. It's just a big, old, often-overgrown chunk of the Jones Falls Valley surrounded by a brick-mortar-macadam city.

The Cylburn Arboretum Associates, a group formed a few years ago to defend the city-owned park, argued that their 190-acre preserve was a special place. Why, they asked, should houses, decks and backyard sheds be built squarely at the entrance to this city park?

By no means will all of the 102 homes due to rise beginning this year at the Coldspring extension hurt the serenity of Cylburn. Most will be situated far enough away from the park not to do any damage.

But the arboretum is shaped like a frying pan, and its narrow handle -- really the main entrance -- is the focus of the controversy. About a dozen of the houses in the Coldspring Newtown addition would be built at the entrance to Cylburn.

The fight over this project was a quirky one. All the land in question is controlled by the City of Baltimore. It owns the park. It also owns the adjacent 18-acre housing site, which will be turned over to a private developer.

But cool heads did not prevail on anyone's part. The Cylburn people at times acted as if they were on the side of the birds and the trees and therefore superior to crass real estate commercialism. They needed to win widespread public support for their cause, but were unable to ward off the bulldozers, despite a lawsuit still pending against the city that would preserve the land.

The builders and city officials privately disdained the Cylburn people as a bunch of daisy-picking eccentrics who acted as if they owned the place. And the elected board of the Coldspring Newtown neighborhood wanted to see the community enlarged. fought effectively to this end.

The controversy was characterized by petty action and shortsightedness. The result of this conflict is a mound of raw earth at the entrance to the arboretum. It isn't a pretty sight. Let's hope that the families who purchase the home sites closest to the arboretum do the right thing and plant plenty of trees. But the skeptic in me fears plastic swimming pools, barking dogs and smoking barbecue grills.

A friend of mine who once bought and sold a home in Coldspring called the city's approach the Robert Moses Method, a reference to the heavy-handed New York park, bridge and highway commissioner/czar. Mr. Moses got the job done, and that's what's happened on Greenspring Avenue.

A couple of things also struck me as ironic about the Cylburn-Coldspring controversy.

One is the original 1970s planning for the neighborhood. Under that plan, a batch of Coldspring homes already are buffered neatly from Greenspring Avenue traffic by a thick growth of trees. This is just the kind of leafy barrier the arboretum people wanted to preserve for their park's entrance. But with the coming of the bulldozers, they have lost their fight for an effective screen of trees.

The other thing is the name of the new housing development. It is called The Woodlands at Coldspring.

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