Group will draft plan to revitalize valley

Economic development, mill restoration sought in Jones Falls area

March 06, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

An effort to rejuvenate the area along one of Baltimore's major waterways intends to make "Jones Falls" mean more than "expressway" to the 75,000 or so who drive beside it daily.

City officials, business and civic leaders and residents have begun work on a Jones Falls Valley master plan. Their goal is to encourage residential and economic development, including restoration of the old mill buildings that were once the backbone of city commerce.

The Jones Falls Valley covers about 12 percent of the city. It encompasses rowhouse neighborhoods that clustered near the mills such as Hampden; some of the city's wealthier neighborhoods, such as Cross Keys and Roland Park; and some of the region's best-known attractions, including the Baltimore Zoo and Baltimore Museum of Art. The watershed also includes five colleges and universities -- the Johns Hopkins University, Loyola College, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Morgan State University and Maryland Institute, College of Art -- that will be part of the planning.

"We want people to think of the Jones Falls Valley as an integrated whole, not just an expressway to get to work," Alfred W. Barry III, a planning consultant, told a gathering Saturday of about 100 people in Hampden that launched the effort.

Referring to recreational kayaking that has become popular on the Jones Falls, William Miller, executive director of Greater Homewood Community Corp., added, "Maybe people would commute on the river rather than on I-83."

The area's recreational allure is gaining attention. As many as 7,500 people have participated annually in the Jones Falls Valley Celebration the past two autumns. A third is scheduled in September, when the city closes the expressway to traffic and encourages residents to explore the watershed. People at Saturday's meeting also said they have been impressed by recent volunteer cleanups of the streambed.

"After hundreds of hours of hauling garbage, we changed the Jones Falls from a storm drain to a scenic river," said Michael Beer, co-chairman of the Jones Falls Watershed Association. "Today, there is optimism about what the Jones Falls holds and might become. It is a great treasure within city boundaries."

Mill Centre, a restored, fully occupied 90,000-square-foot building where the meeting was held, is testament to the economic and environmental potential of the watershed, Miller said. It houses about 40 art studios, galleries and offices.

"Buildings like this blend artists with 21st-century businesses and technology," Miller said. "You can work on the Internet around the world from this building. There are no drawbacks. We are talking about occupying and upgrading of vacant property."

Miller saw no reason why all 11 mills cannot undergo a similar rebirth. Many are being restored. Three, including Mill Centre, have been fully renovated.

"It would be wonderful to do the whole valley and really capture the magic of this resource," said Bill Struever, an urban developer, whose company is rehabilitating the vacant Kirk-Stieff Silver building on Wyman Park Drive. The silversmith closed last year after nearly two centuries in the city.

The planning effort will focus on the area from Penn Station north to Lake Roland at the city line. It is expected to take about a year and cost about $175,000 in public and private money. Miller said he expects the plan to receive state support as well.

"This is a small down payment for the future investments along this valley," said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp., a nonprofit, quasi-governmental development arm of the city.

The Jones Falls area could give the city a competitive edge in attracting high-tech business and jobs, he said.

"We have great old buildings, the Inner Harbor and the Jones Falls and it all comes together in this valley," Frank said.

M. Gordon Wolman, a Johns Hopkins University professor of geography and the environment, cautioned participants that the best-laid plans can collect dust. He pointed to a 1961 Jones Falls revitalization plan that promised to "bring a bit of the country into the city."

"In place of that vision, we got a Sears warehouse and a Pepsi plant," said Wolman, whose father, Abel, pioneered the modern municipal water system. "We sacrificed a gorgeous piece of bottomland which would have made our task easier today."

But Wolman said he remains optimistic, calling the renewed effort "an interesting prospect that may actually happen."

"Despite the behavior of political bipeds, the Jones Falls revives," Wolman said. "What is emerging here today is that this is a terrific place to live, to work and for recreation."

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