City neighborhood balks at new homes

Concerned residents seek to save woodland in North Baltimore

June 03, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

One of Baltimore's last large chunks of developable wooded land may see bulldozers and construction crews soon. But not before some residents go to battle against one of the city's most high-powered development companies.

Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse has submitted preliminary sketches to city planners for an $8 million development of townhouses and single-family cottages on a 9-acre site in leafy Lake Falls, off Falls Road just south of the city-county line.

The developer, a firm well-known for urban renewal projects such as the refurbishment of the American Can Company in Canton, is billing the project as a way to persuade people -- and their tax dollars -- to remain in or move to the city.

"We should concentrate population in the city, not spread it out through an ever-increasing ring of rings in the suburbs," said Ted Rouse, the company's partner in charge of residential development.

Rouse said construction will be started only after neighbors are given ample opportunity for input.

"We're not interested in ramming a concept down anyone's throats," Rouse said.

But some residents, who complained that they first heard about the project only in the past several weeks, see it differently.

"This has been crammed down our throats [so] quickly that we're still trying to swallow the pieces," said Meme Thomas, vice president of the Lake Falls South Community Association. She said the project will drive away the deer, foxes and possums that populate the land. "This popped out of nowhere."

The proposal for the "Fallslake" community calls for 35 to 40 new homes -- half townhouses and half detached cottages -- selling for between $179,000 and $299,000. The community will be built in the "new urban" style, creating a small-town atmosphere, Rouse said.

Because the dwellings would be clustered more closely than current zoning allows, the City Council will have to approve the development before ground is broken.

Rouse said his company is eager for the council to consider the plan before it recesses for the summer on June 14. Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said she would likely introduce a bill concerning the proposal because it is in her district. But it is unlikely that any action will be taken before June 14, she said.

"This is not on a fast track," she said.

Spector cautioned her constituents against opposing the project without studying it closely. Because the project requires council action, she said, it offers an opportunity for community input that would not exist were a developer to carry out a plan allowed under current zoning -- for example, one that calls for more dwellings that are not so closely clustered.

"This is private property. It's for sale. It carries certain rights," Spector said. "Something will be developed there."

Rouse said that he has been meeting with community leaders to address their worries about the plan and that he believes he can persuade Spector to introduce a bill within the next two weeks.

Rouse said that timing is critical and that holding up the project all summer -- and possibly through the fall if it has to wait for approval from a newly elected council in November -- would be too costly.

"Time is money for everybody," he said.

But to the people who live nearby -- from the smaller, older homes off Falls Road that used to be part of the old milling town of Washingtonville to the posh properties closer to Poplar Hill -- the project is about more than money.

The project could increase traffic on Falls Road, already renowned for jamming at peak hours. Residents are also concerned that displacing too much soil and grassland could worsen erosion on their properties.

Residents also fear that a densely populated townhouse development would alter the character of a community with older homes and narrow streets that represent the remnants of a mill town dating to the 18th century.

"It's so sad. There's so much history in this nook. Instead of exploiting it as a new area to be built, they should be looking at it as an area to preserve, identify and conserve," said Thomas. "The city has 40,000-plus of vacant units they need to concentrate on, not this open patch of land to make a quick buck."

Leaders from eight community associations from surrounding neighborhoods planned to meet last night to create an organization called the Greater Falls Road Neighborhood Task Force to articulate concerns over the project in a single voice. Bob Leffler, a resident who organized the meeting, said that he is willing to work with Rouse's firm but that the project came along too fast. Reporters were not allowed to attend the meeting.

Leffler warned that if the development makes the area less attractive, it could actually drive residents away from the city rather than woo them in.

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