Fueling recovery efforts

Goals: A city neighborhood has been working to bring in younger residents, secure a food market and stop plans for a gas station.

November 12, 2001|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Tidy white farmhouses here look like they could have fields of Iowa corn growing behind them. Breezy porches face the green Forest Park Municipal Golf Course, where the crickets just sounded their last notes of 2001. Here and there, the paint is peeling and the roof needs repair.

The modern face of Howard Park is trying to dust off its wrinkles, from its neglected commercial district with a faded movie theater-turned-church to a shuttered supermarket that's forced an aging population to shop elsewhere for necessities.

For the better part of a year, the community has been working with its Northwest Baltimore neighbors to draft a comprehensive master plan. Aims include expanding senior housing, increasing homeownership among younger residents and securing a supermarket for residents.

What they don't want are more gas stations, residents said.

That's what the neighborhood, which crosses the upper reaches of Liberty Heights Avenue, is up against as it struggles to rebuild itself. BP has proposed to build a service station at the site of the closed food market, a project critics say will deal a blow to Howard Park revitalization efforts. At stake is a moderately stable neighborhood, residents say, rich with pockets of residential real estate.

Residents say the community's heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, when waves of middle-class African-American families moved in, distancing themselves from inner-city troubles.

Many of those same people are now retired and too settled to leave a neighborhood whose most thriving hub is the senior center. Census 2000 figures show that about 20 percent of residents are in their 60s or 70s.

Resident Herbert G. Diggs, 67, said when the Ambassador movie palace was open, the neighborhood of tree-lined streets "was fantastic. The doors were left open, there were clothes on the line."

"We need a food market," said Elton O. Jacquette, president of the Howard Park Civic Association, who has lived there for 25 years and is mobilizing Howard Park against the gas station plan. "The residents are growing old." Jacquette organized a series of sidewalk protests, the most recent in front of City Hall on Friday.

District 5 City Councilwomen Rochelle "Rikki" Spector and Helen L. Holton, who represent Howard Park, recently walked along Liberty Heights Avenue and voiced support for the community's cause.

"This neighborhood needs a win," Spector said. "But how do you promote homeownership without a food store? They are absolutely underserved." This problem is not unique to Howard Park, which recently lost its Super Pride market - Baltimore has 46 food markets for the entire city.

Spector and Holton pointed out signs of new investment, including a 75-unit housing project for low- to moderate-income seniors in the former Forest Park Elementary School. The Oaks at Liberty is expected to be completed next month. One hope is that as seniors move into the facility, housing will be freed up for young families to move in, Spector said.

A gas station won't make the neighborhood more attractive to homebuyers, said Mereida Goodman, president of the Greater Northwest Community Coalition. "We have been working on this [Northwest] comprehensive plan for a year," Goodman said. "[BP] were told in no uncertain terms that we didn't want [a station] here, and then they went ahead as if none of that mattered."

The comprehensive plan does not designate a specific use for the 4600 block of Liberty Heights Ave., where BP plans to build a service station, she said.

BP officials bought two adjacent parcels on the block for more than $900,000 this year. Saying the company needed more time to work with the community and city, BP lawyer David K. Gildea requested the city's zoning board last week to postpone a hearing on the proposed facility. The hearing had been set for tomorrow.

John C. Curry, a BP spokesman, said the company would like to build a roughly $2 million 2,900-square-foot station at the site of the closed market. .

Jacquette said Howard Park has "a great sense of pride and determination to do well, but the community has not had a chance to sit at the table with BP, except for a presentation ... in May."

Curry said the company altered its site drawings after the May meeting to address concerns about children's safety because the site is across from an elementary school. To discourage children from crossing the street without a light or a guard, a knee-high wall would be built around the station's perimeter, Curry said. "We took their input, which we'll present to the [zoning] board," he said.

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