Community appeals to history to stop townhouse development

Residents want to mark former mill town off limits to further construction

June 04, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

North Baltimore residents are exploring another way to block a proposed development of cottages and townhouses: convince historic preservationists that their neighborhood should be designated an old mill town and hope this forces city officials to think twice about the plan.

The option emerged yesterday as community leaders in Lake Falls and Poplar Hill continued voicing concerns over a plan by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, Inc. to develop 9 acres of woods just east of Falls Road, below the Baltimore County line. The privately owned land -- one of only a few large swaths of developable wooded property left in the city -- would be turned into 35 to 40 new homes.

Residents who oppose the development and its potential impact on traffic and the environment say they have been backed into a corner since the developer is rushing to introduce plans in the City Council before the council's summer recess begins June 14.

Community leaders said they will consider submitting applications to the city's Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation or the National Register of Historic Places. To gain historical designation, buildings must be at least 50 years old and have some historical significance.

Residents were taking inventory yesterday on the dates the homes were built and trying to determine how much of Washingtonville, a 1796 mill town sacrificed in 1958 for the Jones Falls Expressway, remains.

Wayne Nield, a resident and a preservation consultant, said some buildings on tiny Stanton Avenue, where mill workers lived, show up in an 1877 atlas.

Residents are to meet with city planners and City Council members Tuesday.

Although the development property is wooded, residents say its hilly topography and streams are important remnants of Washingtonville because these natural features are what made the area ideal for a mill.

They would also include in any designation about 30 additional structures that they believe were homes of mill workers.

"This is our lives," said Bob Leffler, a resident who organized the Greater Falls Road Neighborhood Task Force in response to the development.

"We've got two different interests here. They want it. We don't. And the more it gets bogged down, the worse it is for them. We're reacting as a community."

History not a hindrance

Ted Rouse, the developer's partner in charge of residential development, said he welcomed any historic designation. Rouse noted that his company has frequently worked to develop sites in a style that reflects their heritage, such as the American Can Co. in Canton.

"There's nothing I'd rather do than create the essence of what that historic mill town community was like," said Rouse.

Rouse said it is too early to tell whether a historic designation would hamper efforts to build. Opponents of Rouse's plan have said that because the property is privately owned, a historic designation might not block development.

"It at least will give city planners an idea that this is not a typical urban area that needs to be renewed or exploited," said Meme Thomas, vice president of the Lake Falls South Community Association.

Thomas said that the community could consider buying the property.

Struever Bros. is under preliminary contract to purchase the site from its current owner, John Roche.

Roche, reached yesterday, declined to comment.

"It may be too late"

Jamie Hunt, vice president of Baltimore Heritage, a nonprofit preservation group, called the Washingtonville proposal viable. But given that a developer has already shown such interest, timing could be the obstacle.

"It's a bureaucratic process," Hunt said of efforts to win historical designation. "It takes so long. I fear it may be too late."

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