A city development comes close to home

Urban Chronicle

Rotunda: A company's plans have residents in the North Baltimore neighborhood concerned and hopeful.

September 01, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE'S building boom is coming to a location near me -- very near me.

The location is the Rotunda shopping center at the nexus of Hampden, Roland Park and Wyman Park in North Baltimore -- a half-block from the rowhouse where I have lived for nearly 30 years.

Hekemian & Co. Inc., a New Jersey developer, completed its purchase of the 11 1/2 -acre site last month and is planning a major makeover of the retail and office complex, which saw a steady exodus of shops under its previous owner. The company wants to expand the retail space by 50 percent and add a parking garage, up to 500 apartments and condominiums, and an unspecified number of townhouses.

The company has discussed its plans with community leaders, public officials and newspaper reporters over the spring and summer. Last week, leaders of the Wyman Park Community Association outlined the plans and drawings to residents.

My interest in the project goes beyond proximity: The Rotunda is the place where I do my grocery shopping and banking and get my hair cut. It also used to be the place where I'd buy books and records and, occasionally, a sandwich, but those stores have shut down.

Compared with a lot of meetings I've been to concerning neighborhood development issues, this one was subdued and sparsely attended.

Still, those who showed up expressed many of the same concerns I have -- traffic and parking, the height of the apartments, the route of trucks during the expected two-year period of construction and the planned mix of stores.

Despite these reservations, and assuming traffic studies being commissioned by the developer don't point to gridlock on surrounding streets, I came away thinking the project should be a plus -- for the city and the neighborhood.

For the city, the gain is almost a no-brainer.

The proposed development would not displace any residents or require any demolition beyond an addition to the 1921 building.

It would make use of underutilized space in a stable neighborhood by expanding on a surface parking lot and create additional retail opportunities, while providing the kind of housing that might attract new taxpaying residents.

The $29.5 million purchase price for the Rotunda was nearly twice its current assessed value. By my calculations, that means the city will receive an additional $350,000 or so more in annual property tax revenues -- money that can be spent to renovate run-down buildings, repair recreation centers or hire more police officers. And that's without the $70 million the company says it is going to invest in the project.

What's more, at least so far, the developer is not requesting any city aid -- no grants, no loans, no property tax relief or tax increment financing.

That's the kind of pure private-sector investment the city needs more of -- especially on the heels of this summer's contentious debate over the desirability of the city's funding of a Convention Center hotel.

Of course, the flip side of not asking for financial assistance, not buying city property and not needing a zoning change -- the property is zoned for commercial residential and retail use -- is that it limits the degree of city oversight.

For the neighborhood, the calculus is less clear.

The number of parking spaces to accommodate the project would have to increase from 800 to 1,800. And though many would be underground, the figure brings home the magnitude of a plan more grandiose than almost anyone had envisioned.

And I worry about noise from increased truck traffic making deliveries to a Giant Food store that would double in size -- especially because it would be relocated to the side of the mall closest to my house.

Still, a revitalized commercial area strikes me as a positive thing -- particularly when it's supported by new housing.

To me, one measure of an urban neighborhood's vitality is the number of goods and services you can get within walking distance of your home. Far from being out of character, the proposed apartments are in keeping with an area that derives much of its vibrancy from a mix of single-family homes and rental units.

At last week's meeting, Kathleen Talty, president of the Wyman Park Community Association, stressed that the group wasn't taking a position on the project, but she said the developer had been "sensitive" to nearby residential streets. She also said the developer wants to create a link between the rear of the development and Hampden's revitalized commercial district two blocks away.

Those are two feathers in the project's cap.

More fundamentally, urban neighborhoods often need to change to thrive. The Rotunda building is a product of just such an evolution, having been converted from offices of the old Maryland Casualty Co. to a ground-floor mall with offices on top in 1971.

It's time for a change once again.

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