Balto. Co. plans beautification, upgrades at Essex intersection

$1 million project to add crosswalks, trees to area

March 01, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

A century ago, it was a crossroads where two worlds met. Now Baltimore County planners are drawing up designs to refurbish that faded Essex intersection as part of a $1 million streetscape project that will serve as a green gateway to a sprawling public park and new east-side villages.

Old Eastern Avenue, from Back River Neck Road east to a new turnoff at Eastern Boulevard, will be upgraded with trees, new sidewalks, curbs, bike paths and traffic reconfigurations. And the intersection, known to generations of shore property owners, farmers and fishermen as Josenhan's Corner, will receive pedestrian-friendly crosswalks and other improvements.

Ray Heil of the county Office of Community Conservation said he and other county officials have been working with a citizen-advisory group on the plan. Engineering is expected to start in three months, and construction will begin in the summer of 2005, Heil said.

"It's a great idea because it will put us in a more attractive environment," said the Rev. William A. Gray III, an advisory group member and pastor of St. Stephen African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is on Josenhan's Corner, where Old Eastern Avenue and Back River Neck Road intersect.

St. Stephen was founded in 1870 as blacks were migrating to the area in the wake of the Civil War. Ida Brown, whose two sons were killed in the war, moved from Calvert County to what is now Essex and purchased hundreds of acres using money she received from the government for the loss of her sons, Gray said, citing local archives.

Today, the church, with a congregation of about 1,200, provides a variety of services, including day care, community college courses, substance-abuse counseling and a pantry for the homeless.

Across the street, German immigrants who first settled in Highlandtown and later moved to Essex opened a general store in 1907. Another German family had started a restaurant and bar on Josenhan's Corner six years earlier.

In those days, Back River Neck Road was paved with oyster shells and city dwellers flocked to the waterfront in the summer months.

"It was like living in another dimension," remembered Norman Lauenstein, 76, a semi-retired attorney whose family owned the Josenhan's Corner Store until the 1960s. "Our store was like the Wal-Mart of its time - clothes, lumber, tools, medicine. And black children and white children played together; we had great baseball games. It was far removed from a world that was losing its innocence."

In recent years, A-1 Crab Haven, a restaurant that was frequented by visiting professional baseball players, jockeys and other colorful characters, stood on Josenhan's Corner. Next door, the Thunderbird Drive-In served as a hangout for teen-agers with hot cars.

Both are gone now, and an Aldi supermarket will rise in their place. Older buildings stand on the other two corners - one houses Neptune's restaurant and the other, a former Laundromat, will be purchased by St. Stephen for additional day care space.

Last week, a major element of the Josenhan's Corner project was changed in response to input from the citizen-advisory group.

Originally, designers thought a roundabout would work better at the intersection than the traffic signals now in use.

But Gray and others told the county that roundabouts are not pedestrian-friendly and that building one at an intersection with so much foot traffic could cause problems.

"The safety of the children in that area were our main concern," said Roger Zajdel, owner of the Commodore Hall and Bar on Old Eastern Avenue and a member of the streetscape group. "The rest of the plan appears fine to us, and they were very responsive to removing the roundabout idea from the plan."

Added Heil: "The residents felt a roundabout would have been unpredictable for pedestrians, so we dropped the plan for the roundabout and will upgrade the intersection to make it safer for foot traffic."

Other improvements are also planned. Stemmers Run Road, from Old Eastern Avenue to Ann Avenue, will get new curbs, sidewalks and landscaping. And the east end of Old Eastern Avenue will be reconfigured so that it turns left, crosses Eastern Boulevard and connects with Seamaster Road, the entrance to WaterView, a new housing development on the Middle River.

The current intersection at Old Eastern Avenue and Eastern Boulevard will be closed and turned into a cul-de-sac punctuated by a small triangular park.

Heil said the beautification project will enhance the entrance to the 50-acre Tall Trees Park off Old Eastern Avenue, once the site of the Villages of Tall Trees, a World War II-era apartment complex that was demolished. The improvements will also benefit residents who move to Hopewell Pointe, a waterfront community being built south of the revitalization area.

One longtime resident with a foot in the past and another in the future is Daniel W. Hubers, 86, president of a local savings and loan association who owns 60 acres of undeveloped land on Middle River - choice property adjacent to the Hopewell Pointe project that is for sale.

His grandparents lived in Highlandtown after emigrating from Germany. They purchased a parcel on the northwest corner of Old Eastern Avenue and Back River Neck Road, and in 1901 opened a restaurant and bar across from Josenhan's Corner Store that remained until 1978.

"When this corner was just starting to rise, truck farmers brought up their produce from the peninsula and sold it at places in the city like Lexington and Broadway markets. Everything was green then, horses on the roads and lots of fish in the rivers.

"When I was a boy, I would go out in the morning on Middle River and grab up four or five soft crabs and my mother would fry them up for breakfast," Hubers said. "Those days are gone forever."

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