As bulldozers loom, neighborhoods unite

Two communities try to preserve woods

June 12, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

In the woody hillside that abuts his North Baltimore home, Hal MacLaughlin can glimpse chirping birds dancing in the high branches of 100-foot poplar trees, even an occasional deer strolling in the underbrush at sunrise.

MacLaughlin built an addition to his home last summer with a sea of windows so the family could enjoy the scenery while eating breakfast.

Want to make the MacLaughlins mad? Tell them 35 houses will replace some of the trees, as developer Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, Inc. proposed three weeks ago.

Their neighbors will get mad, too.

"To think Baltimore City offers neighborhoods like this -- to me, we've been blessed," says MacLaughlin, an attorney who moved into his white, Cape Cod-style home in Poplar Hill in 1993. "But this will never be replaced. When it's gone, it's gone."

In Poplar Hill and Lake Falls South, off Falls Road on the northern edge of the city -- there is a phrase potential developers can abide by to avoid the ire of residents: Don't mess with the woods and don't increase traffic.

Struever Bros., which wants to develop 9 acres adjacent to Stanton Avenue, said half of the land would remain wooded. But about 35 townhouses and single-family cottages would take up much of the site. The plan is stalled for the summer because the City Council, which must approve it, goes on summer recess Monday.

Residents say the plan would fell too many trees and bring more cars. They complain that at rush hour, Falls Road becomes gridlocked. No gridlock was evident on a visit Thursday morning, however, when traffic on Falls Road flowed freely. Residents explain that nearby schools, including Boys' Latin just up Lake Avenue, are not in session.

Tuesday, they packed a sweltering meeting at a local church and lodged complaints with the developer. They also confronted, and even shouted at, their City Council representatives , threatening to unseat them if they didn't pay attention to their concerns.

Poplar Hill and Lake Falls South stood united. It was a first, residents say.

A stone's throw apart, the neighborhoods are quite different. Castle-style homes line curvy Poplar Hill Road, which passes through verdant hollows. Homes along Stanton Avenue and Falls Road in Lake Falls South, remnants of an old milltown, are smaller.

Poplar Hill has lush gardens. Lake Falls South has its share of unkept, furniture-filled yards among the tidier ones.

The roughly 150 households of Poplar Hill include physicians, lawyers and business executives. Lake Falls South, with about 80 households, has more residents who work in construction.

An 1850 beige three-story home along Falls Road sold in 1996 for $66,000. A palatial, rustic-looking house on Bellemore Road in Poplar Hill sold in 1996 for $434,000.

In the fight with Struever Bros., these worlds have converged. What is important to residents on both sides of the development site is that their nook in North Baltimore, which offers what they say is a unique style of city living be protected from the impersonality and heavy traffic of suburbia.

They relish their access to woods where children pick mulberries. They enjoy their proximity to Lake Roland and the 10-minute trip to downtown. The Falls Road light rail station is within walking distance. So is an organic food store, and the Meadowbrook Swim Club, where Caryn Mangels' three daughters swim.

"Poplar Hill historically has the funds and the clout to really get something passed or not," said Mangels, who lives on Stanton Avenue, as her German shepherd, Cisco, loped toward her from a field that might soon contain townhouses. "Little Lake Falls South alone would not be able to do this."

The history of the two communities is diverse. The homes along Stanton -- many more than a century old -- were on the periphery of Washingtonville, a milltown. In his 1980 book "Mount Washington," Mark Miller describes how homeowners in 1920 rented to millworkers, creating extra units by tying bedsheets between walls.

Poplar Hill grew in spurts, evidenced by the wide range of architecture. George D. Penniman, a lawyer for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, bought a dozen acres of the hill in 1900, when the land was mostly pastures. His granddaughter, Peggy, still lives in a tiny white house there, the basement of which was once the manure pit of her grandfather's horse stable.

Peggy Penniman, 53, said the land had so few trees originally that her grandfather could watch the streetcar roll down Mount Washington and then run to catch his ride to the city. As a child, Penniman remembers, neighbors were mostly relatives.

Sandy Marenberg, director of acquisitions and planning for Struever Bros., said his company wants to protect what residents cherish. A bucolic style of living is what the company hopes will woo young professionals to buy its homes, so why would Struever Bros. harm it, he asks.

Residents fear that is just talk. It is time to mobilize, they say.

"We've got smart people out here," said Poplar Hill Association President Leigh Middleditch. "We want to change things the way we want to change them."

Pub Date: 6/12/99

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