As houses rise, so do concerns

Poplar Hill worries about `ambience,' Falls Road traffic

April 10, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Towering trees once formed a shell of quiet and beauty around Hal MacLaughlin's home in the Poplar Hill section of North Baltimore.

Now, when MacLaughlin looks from his back porch toward Falls Road, he sees deep mud tracks, bulldozers and dump trucks. It's a dose of something Poplar Hill hasn't seen in more than half a century: development.

Baltimore's real estate market has boomed in the past several years, especially in affluent neighborhoods such as Roland Park, Guilford and Poplar Hill. But a lack of land has precluded most development. That's what makes Washingtonville Addition, just east of Falls Road on the edge of Poplar Hill, unusual, Baltimore real estate experts say.

Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse stirred up concern two years ago when it announced plans to develop 35 to 40 townhouses and cottages on the nine acres. Homeowners in Poplar Hill and moderate-income Lake Falls said the development would rob the area of precious forest and lead to more traffic on congested Falls Road.

Struever Bros. appeased many residents when it unveiled a new plan last year to build 19 detached homes on the plot. Ground was broken for the development in October, and it is expected to be completed late next year.

Homes will cost $400,000 or more. Prospective buyers have put down deposits on all 19 lots, and there is a waiting list if any back out, said Jeff Powers of Powers Homes, which will construct the houses.

Expensive developments have also sprung up in recent years at Cross Keys Village on Falls Road and on Gittings Avenue near Cedarcroft. Houses in each sold quickly.

As long as prices remain high, people will continue selling the 5- to 10-acre patches of land suited for small developments, city real estate experts say. Affluent Baltimore neighborhoods don't have enough open land for the kinds of larger developments that have bolstered tax revenue in cities such as Atlanta and Washington.

"There's not enough upper-end supply to meet the demand," said Sandy Marenberg, a real estate consultant who worked with Struever on the Washingtonville project. "There's a trend nationally toward building high-end homes in cities, but there aren't many places in Baltimore you can put expensive housing."

High-end buyers are discerning, said developer Larry Rosenberg, who built the $350,000 to $750,000 homes at Cross Keys. They expect safe neighborhoods and access to good schools, he said.

"The trend is to look to in-fill homes in established neighborhoods," Rosenberg said. "That's where these small opportunities exist. Even a single large house with a lot of land around it can be turned into a small cluster of homes."

Ted Rouse, Struever's partner in charge of residential development, said there are about 15 "A+" neighborhoods in Baltimore where upscale developments could work if land became available.

Many young professionals and suburbanites with grown children want to move closer to downtown, real estate experts say, and developments such as Washingtonville will give them a chance to do so.

Support from Spector

"If you build it, they will come," said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who has supported the development.

"The closer-in houses are more sought-after," Rouse said. "I can only surmise it's a function of people who are fed up with sitting in traffic jams all day."

Besides, he said, "the suburbs are boring."

Development in established neighborhoods such as Poplar Hill can cause friction. Residents there say they understand the city's need for more tax revenue but that as a significant source of existing tax revenue, they deserve protection from development-related problems.

MacLaughlin said runoff from the site has turned his back yard into a mud puddle several times in the past month. A video he made March 30 shows water rushing steadily from the construction site through his yard and into the stream that cuts through his property.

"I don't believe these issues are being addressed promptly or properly by the developer," he said. "This is a highly sensitive area to develop environmentally, and we're not satisfied that they're showing the proper diligence."

Builders drained an underground aqueduct during a rainy period, Rouse said, which might have caused the site's sediment pond to overflow. He said the problem shouldn't recur.

Builders haven't knowingly dumped any sediment into MacLaughlin's stream, said project manager Bill Zahler.

MacLaughlin said he finds such answers glib and unsatisfying. If his property continues to flood every time it rains, he said, he might consider suing the developer for loss of property value.

The potential for heavier traffic on Falls Road concerns residents such as Tom Bowyer, who lives a few houses from MacLaughlin. The new development will add 40 or so cars.

"It can't take the traffic it gets now," said Bowyer, a bulldozer glinting in the sun over his shoulder.

With the Fresh Fields grocery store just across Falls Road and five private schools nearby, a traffic bottleneck forms between the intersections at Northern Parkway and Lake Avenue, Poplar Hill residents say.

`Unbearable'

"The traffic is just unbearable," Spector said.

Other neighbors think the new homes won't look appropriate. Large older homes, many made of stone to resemble castles, dominate the neighborhood. Houses routinely sell for more than $500,000, and a few have sold for more than $1 million recently.

"I think it will change the ambience of the neighborhood," said Bowyer's wife, Leslie. "This neighborhood's really been close-knit and self-contained, but this opens it up more to Falls Road. I don't think the new homes will fit in with the homes around here."

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