Worry on the Patapsco Leery: Some Cherry Hill residents -- already betrayed by the city -- worry that new senior housing would take away the ailing district's best feature: its stunning view.

March 04, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Every morning, Elnora Robinson Cash rises from the pink sheets and places her grandmother's old wooden chair by the second-floor window of her Reedbird Avenue home. Then she grabs a paperback Bible off the table and prays toward a spectacular view of the Patapsco River's Middle Branch.

"It's the most beautiful thing in the morning when the sun rises," Mrs. Cash says. "We need to keep this view. Nobody can tell me we shouldn't keep this view."

But the harbor views enjoyed by Mrs. Cash and other Cherry Hill residents may be threatened by an innovative Harbor Hospital Center proposal to build low-income senior citizen housing on city-owned waterfront property.

And residents -- many of them old enough to remember broken city promises to create a neighborhood of parks and water views -- are fighting back, despite a relentless campaign by the hospital to win them over.

To outsiders, it seems a curious dispute. Even members of the LaRue Square community association who have circulated petitions against the project support the housing proposal.

Some, such as Mrs. Cash, 79, say they may need it one day soon. But for these residents, preserving a clear view of the harbor is more important than badly needed housing. The hospital already blocks much of the harbor. "And with this project, you will have a virtual wall blocking the community from the river," says Donald Simms, a 29-year Reedbird Avenue resident who works for the Defense Department.

Conversations with Mr. Simms and other neighbors quickly turn from the present fight to past transgressions against their community.

After Cherry Hill was developed as a planned community for blacks in 1943, The Sun quoted residents as praising the area for its "air," "space" and "cleanliness." But soon after, the city took out many of the trees, reneged on a promise to establish small parks, and made way for creation of Reedbird Incinerator.

Eventually, residents drove out the incinerator, but Cherry Hill, 99 percent of whose residents are black, has more than its share of ills. According to statistics from the 1990 census, the 17 percent homeownership rate and the $15,470 median household income lag the rest of the city.

Still, the harbor vistas and wide-open spaces seem to give Cherry Hill more hope than other city neighborhoods. Residents say Cherry Hill feels bigger and wider -- in no small part because of the harbor and the passing ships that augur promise and remind young people of the outside world.

The south bank of the Patapsco also holds warm memories for most Cherry Hill residents. Cool breezes from the water take the edge off Baltimore summers, and on the Fourth of July, crowds gather to watch the fireworks display over the harbor.

'A suburb in a city'

"From the 1940s, when black families were moving here, it was to Cherry Hill's advantage that it appeared to be a suburb in a city," says Michael Browne, a member of Cherry Hill Development Corp., a nonprofit community development group. "Having the view gives a sense of open space, and a sense of freedom."

The proposed housing would consist of a 120-unit apartment building with projected rents of $400 to $475, a four-story building with 100 beds for nursing care and assisted living, and a senior center with dining and meeting rooms.

The seniors themselves would govern the $16 million to $20 million community on the hospital's south parking lot, overlooking the Middle Branch. It would be the first retirement housing built on Baltimore's waterfront since 1974.

Harbor Life Services, the hospital affiliate that is leading the project, hoped to win community support by April 15, the application deadline for a competitive state loan and tax credit to support such projects. But the objections of neighbors have been so strong that officials say they are trying to get the community more involved in the project before proceeding. No progress toward construction is expected until the fall.

Befuddled and frustrated

If the hospital cannot eventually win over such residents as Mrs. Cash, it is possible the project never will be built.

"In the long run, it would be a great loss to the community if this project was not built," says Neetu Dhawan-Gray, executive director of the city's commission on aging. "In the next 10 to 15 years, you're going to see an increasing number of people who live in Cherry Hill who will need housing like this."

Hospital officials seem equal parts befuddled and frustrated by the objections.

DeWayne L. Oberlander, president and chief executive of Harbor Life Services, produces a variety of charts for visitors, with clear descriptions of the community's need for such a project. He has placed community members, including some of the project's strongest opponents, on an advisory committee for Harbor Life Services.

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