Roland Park's renaissance a lesson for city

June 08, 1999|By Kathy Hudson

TO THE amazement of many people, Roland Park is back. For months, the North Baltimore neighborhood's real estate market has been so active it has been difficult to buy a house without paying more than the asking price -- that's if you can find one for sale.

Some longtime residents like me are thrilled that people are willing to take on these comely, old homes, many in need of renovation and priced from $200,000 to $1 million.

The sudden rush on Roland Park -- and some other city neighborhoods -- is indeed good news for a city where 1,000 residents leave every month, most bound for surrounding suburbs. We need the tax revenue that middle-class homeowners bring, especially in light of the recent news of a projected $153 million deficit for the city over the next four years.

Renewed enthusiasm for some city neighborhoods should be instructive to community planners, government leaders and Baltimore's next mayor. An examination of the city's stable neighborhoods, most of which appear to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts, shows what key things they have in common: careful development, preservation and community vigilance.

Neighborhood activists

My neighborhood is a textbook example. Some 25 years ago, Roland Park's historic Tudor-style shopping center on Roland Avenue, one of the first such centers in the country, was almost razed by its then-owner and replaced with a modern structure. The city zoning board had approved the plan, but community activists got wind of it and stopped that mistake from happening. Later a 7-Eleven convenience store was planned for the site; the community squashed that, too.

Demolition of the original shopping center would have weakened the architectural integrity of the community just as the willy-nilly razing of row houses throughout the city has irreparably disturbed streetscapes.

No McDonald's here

Roland Park's watchdog attention to proposed zoning changes has helped maintain the delicate balance between commercial and residential properties, making the community attractive to today's homebuyers. There are no fast food outlets, gas stations, high-rise developments, billboards, big box or convenience stores in Roland Park.

Another important factor in Roland Park's preservation is the renewal of restrictive covenants that dictate the quality of construction and renovation. Some neighborhoods have failed to renew such covenants over the years, opening the way for construction that's out of character for a particular neighborhood.

Preserving neighborhoods much as they were originally is a key selling point today. Many of my new neighbors, either refugees from outside the beltway or from out of town, did not want the plywood and vinyl siding of the suburbs. Instead, they were seeking old, established neighborhoods and houses with character, quality construction and individuality.

Many such newcomers are families with two parents who work full time and are eager to simplify their lives. They want to live within walking distance of shops, schools, a public library, churches and restaurants.

Well-planned from the start

The so-called "new urbanism" school of community planning -- which focuses on walkable neighborhoods with sidewalks, alleys and main street shopping -- has been alive and well in Roland Park since its beginning.

But community planning and architecture aside, a key reason for my neighborhood's revival is a drop in the crime rate, something that much of the rest of the city is enjoying, too. A feeling of relative security is bound to attract homebuyers.

The key elements that originally drew families to this street-car suburb at the turn of the last century are even more valuable as we begin the next century with our overall city in decline: strong public and private schools, quality architecture, trees and parks and convenience.

Without the vision of its developers and continuing community vigilance, Roland Park, like other strong city neighborhoods, would not have survived intact to attract new residents.

Kathy Hudson, a free-lance writer, lives in the 79-year-old Roland Park house where she was raised.

Pub Date: 6/08/99

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