Keswick drops plan for Roland Park retirement project

March 14, 2009|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,

The Keswick Multi-Care Center in Baltimore scrapped its plans yesterday to build a multimillion-dollar retirement community on Roland Park land long owned by the Baltimore Country Club after learning the City Council would not support the proposal, Keswick's chief executive officer said.

Keswick overcame the first hurdle to purchasing the 17 acres when two-thirds of the club's voting members approved the $12.5 million sale last year. But the transaction also was contingent on City Council approval of the more than 275-unit development, which many Roland Park residents actively opposed.

"We were advised by the appropriate individuals that the ordinance we needed will not be introduced" to the council, Keswick CEO Libby Bowerman said yesterday. "So the project can't move forward. That coupled with significant opposition from our neighbors caused us to withdraw."

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who represents the area, announced her opposition to the development last year. She said yesterday that Keswick and the club's leadership then turned to Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake. Yesterday, Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that she had promised "early on" not to overrule Middleton on zoning in her district.

"The majority has spoken," Middleton said. "Roland Park residents are adamant about trying to preserve green space, and they are aware that something else can be built there. ... I'm hoping that the country club and residents can come together again at the table and try to figure out how both parties can come away happy."

Portions of the country club's property have become an unofficial park for residents - a place for dog walking and sledding. During the past year, yard signs reading "Keswick NO" and "Save the Park in Roland Park" sprouted up on lawns. Residents flooded legislators, council members and Mayor Sheila Dixon with letters of opposition and packed community meetings.

Dixon wrote in November that she opposed Keswick's plans but urged the parties to broker a compromise.

"I'm extremely proud of my community," said Philip Spevak, president of the Roland Park Civic League, which led the opposition to development.

He described residents as an "army" and their cause "like nothing I've ever participated in."

"We had experts in politics, communication, newspapers and television ... development, architecture, planning and real estate," said Spevak, who became president of the league two weeks before the controversy erupted. "We had club members ... who didn't want their names to be used but were helping us. The effort was much stronger than I think you could tell from the surface."

Spevak said he believed the club simply perceived the land, once home to its tennis courts, as "surplus." The acreage is already zoned for single-family homes, but the downturn in the real estate market likely would hamper such a sale, community leaders believe.

It's unclear what the club plans to do next. Its board president, John L. Daue, referred questions to the club's general manager, who did not return a phone message requesting comment yesterday.

In a June letter to its members, the club said it needed to sell the land to pay for improvements to its original clubhouse in Roland Park and other facilities in Baltimore County. The club first began selling its city land in the 1960s - first to James Rouse for the planned community of Cross Keys and then to the city for Polytechnic Institute and Western High School.

The club moved its golf course and tennis courts to its Baltimore County property, Five Farms, as its members increasingly left the city for the suburbs. In December, the club demolished its Roland Park tennis clubhouse, which once served four grass courts and occupied land designated for Keswick.

Roland Park residents first began efforts to buy the land in the late 1990s, offering $4.25 million in 1999 and $4.2 million as recently as 2003, according to Doug Munro, the civic league's Web master. Bowerman said Keswick has no plans to build a new facility elsewhere.

"I've thought about the next step from the first day," Spevak said. "I'm going to do everything I can to rebuild the relationship with the club. We hope to buy the land ... and purchase the land at a fair price. I'm not fearful of what can happen to the land. I think we both can achieve our goals."

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