Opponents to affordable housing development in Towson say project would further erode historic Black neighborhood

Baltimore Sun Media
Nov 20, 2020

Its history is linked indelibly to the Historic East Towson neighborhood in which it was erected: it is Towson’s oldest African-American church and second-oldest congregation, built by Black neighborhood residents who purchased the land after their worship for decades was relegated to each other’s homes, Nancy Goldring, president of the Northeast Towson Improvement Association, told a crowd of listeners on Tuesday afternoon.

Yes, East Towson residents know their history. Many, like Goldring, are descendants of the freed men once enslaved at the Hampton estate who purchased land and founded the neighborhood in the 1850s.

It is this history that East Towson residents say is being threatened by a planned affordable housing complex vehemently opposed by the community that would border it, a predominantly Black community that, some residents noted during the walking tour of East Towson, has historically been left out of the conversation as encroaching development over the decades eroded borders, which once spanned to York Road and Bosley Avenue, to just six blocks.

Goldring organized a tour of Historic East Towson on Tuesday — attended by about two dozen people — as part of a bolstered push to resist the Red Maple Place development.

The planned project would create 56 affordable apartment units — 22 one-bedroom units, 17 two-bedroom units and 17 three-bedroom units — on a 2.5-acre plot of land between East Pennsylvania Avenue and East Joppa Road, off Fairmount Avenue. It is bordered by the Harris Hills condominium complex and Historic East Towson.

The proposal is still making its way through the county’s development approval process. A spokeswoman for Homes for America, the Annapolis-based nonprofit seeking to build Red Maple Place, said a second administrative law judge hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Its opponents say they intend to fight the project every step of the way, galvanized rather than discouraged by a failed attempt to block the development through a rezoning request during the county’s Comprehensive Zoning Map Process.

Neighbors fear the project will add more students to schools already nearing capacity, cause traffic woes , given its entrance and exit proposed on Joppa Road, ruin the streetscape and reduce property values.

It’s not clear how residents intend to fight the project. Michele Yendall, who sits on the Harris Hills board of directors, said retaining an attorney was probably too expensive.

J. Carroll Holzer, a lawyer whose office on Fairmount Avenue sits just west of the proposed site — and who over the decades earned a reputation representing community associations going up against developers — said the project could be legally challenged based on its environmental impact.

Environmental preservationists, like Beth Miller of the Green Towson Alliance, say the proposed site also presents topographical issues, especially as the county Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability has approved a variance allowing Homes for America to reduce its buffer requirements on the land.

“Taking out all the trees on that slope, adding impervious surface to what’s already a very flood-prone watershed is gonna contribute to additional flooding” from the nearby Herring Run river that residents say has been increasing over the years, Miller said.

“It’s a really bad piece of property,” Yendall said, adding that she recently spent$1,200 to shore up her porch.

“The ground is simply eroding.”

County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, chose not to support the rezoning request. He said Tuesday he feared doing so could open the door to a federal lawsuit, despite his opposition to building the project in its current form on this piece of land.

Under a 2016 conciliation agreement between the late county executive Kevin Kamenentz’s administration and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Baltimore County is required to “take all necessary steps” to encourage developers to build 1,000 affordable housing units across the county over a period of 12 years, or 83 units per year.

The county is providing a $2.1 million, 40-year loan for Red Maple Place. County Executive Johnny Olszewski, Jr. has previously said his office is “committed to ensuring that Red Maple Place will be an asset to the community and the residents of our county as a high-quality, affordable housing option.”

Marks added that conversations around affordable housing can be inflammatory, and those who inhabit them are often vilified, blamed for nearby crime and stigmatized.

But affordable housing already exists at the nearby age-restricted Tabco Towers and Virginia Towers, and neither Goldring nor other Red Maple opponents have used that rhetoric. On Tuesday, Goldring said she worried the project would draw more police activity to her quiet neighborhood; if a crime is committed nearby, she fears police could assume it came from a Red Maple tenant.

Democratic Del. Cathi Forbes,who joined the walking tour, said the county must find “a smarter way” to facilitate the construction of more affordable housing. She said she was exploring different options to block or change the proposed project, but declined to offer more detail.

Marks said he has been in conversation with Homes for America to shrink the size of the project. He said he was also interested in a suggestion by Goldring to convert a commercial building at 405 East Joppa Road adjacent to the proposed Red Maple Place site into a mixed-use development. That building is currently for sale and is zoned to allow for residential and commercial use.

Fighting the project is a matter of “environmental justice, because of the many incursions into this neighborhood over the years,” said Carol Allen, a Towson resident who once led the disbanded Historic Towson Inc. organization and served on the county’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.

She noted the BGE substation, an eyesore built on a baseball field used by the community off Fairmount Avenue, and construction of the Towsontown Boulevard extension, for which the county razed neighborhood homes.

“Enough, enough already,” she said.

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