Planning panel set to vote on bridges linking schools

Roland Park group questions design

January 31, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Two proposed footbridges linking three North Baltimore private schools may receive final city approval tomorrow, when the planning commission votes on the $2 million project.

The proposed steel-arched bridges spanning Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway have gone through three years of exhaustive community and city design review, but the influential Roland Park Civic League isn't happy.

"The community would like the end result to be a structure designed with the level of detail befitting a public structure in the neighborhood," said Stephen Lauria, an architect and civic league president.

He pointed to the community's water tower and library and the University Parkway bridge over Stony Run as examples of graceful public structures.

The City Council approved a franchise fee last year, which will require Gilman School, Bryn Mawr School and Roland Park Country School to pay a total annual tax of $14,624 for the air-space rights, city officials said.

Jean Hawley, projects manager for Bryn Mawr, said the bridges will connect the campuses for upper school students who participate in an exchange program among the three schools. Finding a way to avoid crossing heavy traffic compelled the schools to act and share all costs. "Safety is the entire issue," she said. "There's an accident waiting to happen.

"We have an army of crossing guards out there," she added, yet serious accidents have occurred over the years, including a fatality involving a crossing guard.

Critics support safety but say the bridges would be too high, calling attention to themselves and intruding on public views. They are particularly upset about the scale of the proposed bridge across Roland Avenue near the heart of the residential neighborhood.

"Because they're such prominent pieces of architecture, they shouldn't be too dominant, too conspicuous," said Lauria. "They look like icons for schools."

The school names will not be displayed, but Lauria and others say they think the bridges' total height in the common right of way is excessive.

The Roland Avenue bridge would have a clearance of 16 feet, Hawley said, and the Northern Parkway bridge, a larger version of the same style, would have a clearance of 18 feet in order to accommodate truck traffic. The larger bridge could reach 35 or 36 feet in height.

In response to the city's design advisory panel and the community, designers added stone to the trim, a concession to the tradition-minded. For those who raised public access concerns, school officials say the footbridges will be open, though the steps would be on school property. "People in the neighborhood should enjoy using them," said Hawley.

The schools have been helped by pro bono work by planning consultant Alfred W. Barry III and Jamie Snead, an architect who leads a steering committee at Gilman. They declined to release the latest drawings of the bridges before tomorrow's 2:30 p.m. hearing.

The bridges will be made of steel, which has gone over better in some quarters than others. Two other neighborhood groups, the Wyndhurst Improvement Association and the North Roland Park Improvement Association, have both registered their approval of the bridges with the city.

"Steel has a lighter appearance," said Nicholas Fessenden, president of the Wyndhurst association.

Robert Quilter, a city architect, said a few points should be resolved tomorrow, among them what will replace the hunter green paint once considered for the steel. "There are all sorts of shades of green," he said.

Lauria said the Roland Park Civic League expected a good-faith effort that would lead to a compromise with the league on the final design -- which, he said, hasn't happened.

The bridges would be private structures in public space, making them another expansion of private schools -- critics say encroachment -- that places private schools at odds with residential neighborhoods.

In Tuscany-Canterbury, the Calvert School is struggling with residents of an apartment complex recently acquired to clear the site for a middle school and playing fields.

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