The design of a proposed apartment building in North Roland Park has been approved. The North Roland Park Association and the city’s Planning Commission have given their blessing.
But many North Baltimore residents say they don’t want to see construction begin on The Overlook at Roland Park, a $40 million, six-level, 148-unit apartment building planned for a 12-acre parcel next to the Belvedere Towers apartments near Falls Road and Northern Parkway.
Last night nearly 200 people came to an information meeting at the Radisson Hotel at Cross Keys to ask questions and express their views about the project.
Some said they came just to learn about the development, but others had already formed strong opinions. They said the development will add to traffic congestion at an already “failing” intersection and they don’t want it built.
One recurring theme of the meeting was that many residents said they don’t believe community residents have had enough say about the number of units and the size of the development. They believe they weren’t represented well by their community leaders.
Many said they want the City Council member whose district includes the Overlook parcel, Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, to “pull the plug” on a City Council bill that is needed for construction to move ahead.
“This is the first open, public meeting that has been held about this,” said Hunter Cochrane, a property owner who lives close to the development site. “There have been a number of little private meetings, but that is why we’re doing this.”
“This is the meeting, this is the conversation, that should have happened at the beginning of the process but never did,” said Poplar Hill resident Mary Ann Mears, the mother of former mayoral candidate Elizabeth Embry.
“The issue is bigger than our immediate neighborhood,” Mears added. “It’s how business is being done in the city of Baltimore. It needs to be more transparent.”
“It sounds like, throughout this process, we never did get everybody together,” said North Baltimore resident Andy Brooks. “Do we have the opportunity to say, Yitzy, hit the pause button, and see if we could somehow make it work?”
The meeting was attended by some of the most influential residents of North Baltimore, including attorney Shale Stiller and his wife, retired Circuit Court Judge Ellen Heller. Residents came from North Roland Park, Poplar Hill, Cross Keys, Normandy Place and Sabina-Mattfeldt.
Also represented was a new community group called the Lehr Stream Neighborhood Association. It was formed by residents who weren’t happy that the North Roland Park group approved the project and so they decided to establish an organization that would reflect their views.
One bombshell came when the developer of the project, Jonathan Ehrenfeld of Blue Ocean Realty, told the audience that one of the opponents, Cochrane, had approached him about investing in the project or buying two acres of land or both. Why did he want to invest in it, Ehrenfeld asked, if he was so opposed to it?
Cochrane said he asked Ehrenfeld about the project as a way to see if he could influence what happens there by working from the inside, as an investor, or at least buying some of the land and making it a buffer zone.
There were apologies from community representatives who said they should have done a better job of informing people about the development and seeking opinions. Several said, in retrospect, they believe there should have been broader meetings.
Kerr Houston, who lives on Sabina Avenue, said it’s already difficult to drive from his street onto Falls Road in the morning and he fears that another apartment building will worsen the situation.
“I have serious concerns about the proposed development,” he said. “Northern Parkway and Falls Road is one of the most stressed and dangerous intersections, not only in Baltimore but all of Maryland. It’s been one of the most dangerous intersections for more than 50 years.”
Poplar Hill resident Peggy Penniman said she’s worried about the trees on the land now. “Nobody is talking about the woods,” she said. “How do we keep them from being stripped?”
The developer and the City Council representative were invited to attend the meeting but were initially not on the agenda to speak. As the meeting unfolded, both had a chance to address the group, along with Shelley Sehnert, president of the North Roland Park community group that supported the development.
Sehnert said her organization has held “over 22” meetings about the project between last fall and this spring. “It’s been a tortuous process,” she said, but “anyone who wanted to participate could have.”
Sehnert said her organization supported the project in part because its members heard that the new group, Lehr Stream, was negotiating separately with the developer and was concerned about what they might be seeking. She said the land in question is private property and she believes the seller has a right to make a profit.
“This is not public land,” she said. “The owner bought it as an investment…He has a right to make money on his investment. We don’t feel, as a community, that we should be interfering with that.”
Sehnert also said she doubted that 148 more apartments are going to make traffic significantly worse in the area.
“I don’t think any of you is going to be found mummified in your car because [traffic] takes an extra 10 or 15 minutes,” she said.
Opponents of the project said they believe there is still a way to block the project because a rezoning request still needs final approval from the City Council. They said there would be a key meeting at noon on June 7 at City Hall, when residents can ask the Land Use and Transportation Committee not to advance the bill. They urged residents to show up at that meeting or write to council members.
They also asked Schleifer, who is in his first term as councilman, to “show leadership” and pull the plug on the legislation before the June 7 hearing.
This led to a technical discussion about options for blocking or delaying the project, and what might happen if the legislation was pulled. In the end, Schleifer indicated that he would not pull the legislation.
The councilman explained that he has been working with four neighborhood groups and the developer to reach a series of agreements that will restrict what gets built on the site. He said the groups were the North Roland Park Association, Poplar Hill, Sabina-Mattfeldt and a group of property owners who live closest to the development site.
Schleifer explained that under the current zoning for the project, the developer is allowed to build up to 197 apartments on the land, 49 more than the current plan.
He said he believes the best way to restrict development is to pass “planned unit development” legislation that spells out and limits exactly what can be built, and that is what the City Council bill is designed to do.
If he pulls the plug on the PUD legislation now, he said, the developer could file for a building permit and construct the 197 apartments.
Schleifer also said he does not want to pull the plug because it could mean the loss of all the restrictions that have been negotiated with the developer up to now. He said he has 24 pages of agreements between the developer and the communities.
“Do we let the developer put in a permit to build what they want to build, or do we try to come to an agreement” through the PUD process?” he asked.
“I believe that pulling the plug would just create a situation where the developer could [apply for] a permit and build the maximum capacity,” he said. “I am still staying on course on how to minimize the impact on the community. I have done that from Day One, and I am going to continue to do that.“
Some residents said they think Schleifer should pull the plug. They said if the developer applies for a permit to build 197 units, the community groups can sue him, and the case will be held up in court for years.
“If we have to go to court for five years to delay it…I’m in favor of that,” Brooks said. “I don’t want any more density.”
Schleifer was accused of not pulling the plug because the developer gave him money for his election campaign. The councilman said he raised $122,000 for his election and acknowledged that Ehrenfeld gave money, but he said that isn’t why he won’t withdraw the bill.
“He wasn’t my biggest supporter. He wasn’t my smallest supporter,” Schleifer said. “To be honest, I got more money from people who are against the project. “
Ehrenfeld said he has already agreed to eliminate one level of apartments and one level of parking. He said the restrictions also include not developing six of the 12 acres and making that open space. “We have made concessions,” he said.
Schleifer said he believes there is still time for community residents to come to an agreement with the developer. “It’s not too late to work out a deal…I would say there’s a few weeks’ time. I’m still open to negotiating and talking about it. …What I’m not open to is people saying …let’s kick the can down the road” and take it up in five years.
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