Bluestem Debate: Developer Proposes Ecological Design of Falls Road Project

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A rendering of Bluestem, a proposed residential and retail development on Falls Road adjacent to Lake Roland.

Water always seeks the path of least resistance. Vanguard Retail Development did not seek such a path during its four-year saga to redevelop six acres along Falls Road adjacent to Lake Roland.

“Because our property is surrounded on three sides by Lake Roland, one of the finest parks in the Baltimore region, we’ve gone to great lengths to [redevelop the property] the right way,” says Len Weinberg, Vanguard principal and co-founder. His firm plans to redevelop 6241 through 6247 Falls Road from a commercial/industrial site to an upscale residential, retail, and commercial development named Bluestem

“Save Lake Roland” signs have become commonplace along the Falls Road corridor over the past few years. They are demonstrations of protest launched by several community members who oppose the development.

On February 14, 2019, Vanguard’s redevelopment journey reaches a culmination with the second Development Plan Hearing scheduled before the Baltimore County Administrative Law Judge at 10 a.m. in the Jefferson Building in Towson. The subsequent hearings are scheduled for March 21 and 22, 2019. Following the conclusion of the hearings, within 30 days, the judge will either grant approval, grant approval with conditions or deny Vanguard’s proposal. If the judge rules in his favor, Weinberg, an optimistic realist, expects Save Lake Roland to file an appeal.   

Vanguard purchased the property in March of 2016 from the Stafford family who owned it since the 1930s. The community, the volunteer Lake Roland Nature Council, and Vanguard share a common concern: the environmental impact of redevelopment on Lake Roland’s 503 acres of wetlands, meadows, mature hardwood forest, and the environmentally sensitive serpentine barrens. The latter is home to several rare and endangered species of flora and fauna and located near the proposed Bluestem project.

The planned layout of the new development.

Protecting the Landscape: Architectural Plans and the Lake Roland Nature Council

Kurt Davis, a Mt. Washington resident, is president of the Lake Roland Nature Council, the nonprofit tasked with administering the park, which is owned by Baltimore city and managed and maintained by Baltimore County. While some council members are active in the Save Lake Roland movement, Davis explains that the council’s role is not to take a position on the project, a mission about which he has been fully transparent.

“The park shares a border with the Vanguard property and borders the serpentine barrens, which is one of three on the East Coast,” Davis says. “The council was concerned with how development was going to impact the environment, and Vanguard has been extremely responsive in answering our questions.”

Many associated with the project have noted the developer’s willingness to consider and incorporate community input. One step Vanguard has taken was to hire a second landscape architecture and engineering firm, Human & Rhode, Inc., in addition to Plusen Landscape Architects, the original landscape architect hired for the job. It’s an unusual step for a project of Bluestem’s size, but one Vanguard took because of Human & Rhode’s vast experience with Lake Roland. Over the past decades, the county has contracted the firm many times to work on the park. Notably, Human & Rhode developed the boardwalk access to Lake Roland Park, which was designed to disturb as little of the natural surroundings as possible.

The boardwalk designed by Human & Rhode.

“It’s an unusual and exciting opportunity to work with another firm on a project like this,” said Devin Leary, ASLA, PLA, vice president of Human & Rhode, Inc. “Most developers would not duplicate costs for our services when already having a perfectly capable firm on hand. We’re being brought in specifically because of the concern for the environment shared by the community and Vanguard.”

Early discussions with the Nature Council include plans to propagate seeds from the park to produce native plants to use in Bluestem’s landscaping to prevent invasive species from affecting the existing natural ecosystem. “There’s a wealth of knowledge among the Nature Council on the native plants in the park,” Leary adds. Jeff Plusen, president of Plusen Landscape Architects, concurs:  “It’s amazing the care and restoration of the park’s many eco-climates that the Nature Council has accomplished.

Lake Roland Park trail map with the location of the site in orange.

Vanguard has made many modifications to the project and the plan at the request of the Nature Council, including the name of the project itself. Originally to be called the “Village of Lake Roland,” the project is now known as Bluestem, a name recommended by the council to honor the rare native Maryland grass found in the park. Vanguard accepted the recommendation and embraced the opportunity to more closely tie the development of the park with this new, unique name. 

The goal, Leary explains, is to protect and complement the park wherever possible through the project. “How do we respect the valuable asset adjacent to us? We’re not trying to meet minimum standards here. We’re trying to create something special.”

Reducing Land Use: Down-Zoning and Community Input

Working with the non-partisan Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association (RRLRAIA), Vanguard requested and was granted a “down-zone” through the 2016 Baltimore County Comprehensive Zoning Map Process. For decades, the county zoned the property Business, Roadside-Automotive Services (“BR-AS”), the most permissible and environmentally unfriendly commercial zoning allowed. Now down-zoned to Commercial, Community Core District (“CCC”) – the closest definition Baltimore County has for a mixed-use “village”-type of development – the approval process included a recommendation and vote of the Baltimore County Department of Planning and a review and favorable vote by the Baltimore County Council. Further approval came from The Maryland Department of Natural Resources, giving Bluestem an environmental green light.

When contacted for an interview, RRLRAIA referenced the documents on its website about the Bluestem, including an RRLRAIA fact sheet addressing the rezoning collaboration: “Of significant importance for both the neighborhood and the environment, this change eliminated potentially undesirable uses of the property, such as automotive services and industrial storage and distribution, to make way for a mixed-use project.” A letter on the RRLRAIA website, dated March 22, 2017, to the RRLRAIA membership and signed by then-president Clark Parriott, notes that the association’s position, “…has always been that we support the rezoning of this property.”

“Most developers don’t downsize zoning as it almost always reduces the potential value for the property to the owners,” Weinberg explains. “We decided it was more important to align with the vision for the community and ensure this property would be a good neighbor to those around us.”

Vanguard’s initial plans called for eight stories for Bluestem’s proposed apartment building. During discussions, RRLRAIA expressed concern with that height and the location of the commercial and residential buildings, as well as a desire to limit the square footage of retail space to preclude big-box stores. In August 2016, Vanguard and RRLRAIA entered into a 35-page Restrictive Covenant Agreement to address concerns. In 2017, the developers again agreed to change the plan to move the building toward Falls Road and further away from the park in response to community input. Also, at the request of the community, the building was downsized from eight stories to six stories, making the building only 15 feet taller than adjacent buildings. Per the covenant, there is no vehicle access to the park, only foot traffic.

Rendering of Bluestem viewed from Clarkview Road and showing the building 15 feet higher than the adjacent building.

The open and public meetings throughout the county approval process often had neighbor arguing against neighbor and with Weinberg and his team of architects and engineers. Those arguments include that Bluestem, which meets Open Space requirements, will increase visitors to what some feel is an already over-crowded park or whether a six-story building belongs in the vistas from the park. The Save Lake Roland website also mentions that the project conflicts with Baltimore County’s Community Master Plan, which is a guideline for developers. This issue is expected to be a main focus of the upcoming Development Plan Hearings.

Improving Stormwater Management and Forest Buffers

Lake Roland Dam

Stormwater management (SWM) is one of the key environmental concerns for the project and Lake Roland. Grandfathered by previously non-existent SWM requirements, the current, commercial use of the property, which includes a mix of retail, warehouses, and tenant Hollins Organic Mulch, does not have an SWM system. “Any chemical, fuel, and greases that travel with stormwater run-off have unobstructed pathways to the streams that feed Lake Roland,” explains Josh Sharon, PE, LSIT, an associate with Morris & Ritchie Associates, Inc., the civil engineers of the project. “With major storm events, there are no devices on the property to control how much water runs off it. Our goal is to control the rain and stormwater run-off.”

To do this, Sharon designed a cutting-edge submerged gravel wetland SWM system, which is “capable of providing tremendous water quality for a site that is currently a detriment to the environment,” he says. Adding that several commercial and residential properties outside of the Bluestem boundaries also lack SWM systems, due to the age of the development, he explains that “these properties are putting untreated water into the lake. Redevelopment will address this.” Based on existing, onsite conditions, Vanguard’s plan meets and exceeds federal and state SWM volume requirements to store and treat water, Sharon explains.

“This is an exceptional project from an environmental standpoint and from helping the community be more comfortable with what we are doing,” says Sharon. When park guests and Bluestem residents see the SWM system, they will see what appears to be a natural wetland.

Protecting the forest buffer is another critical environmental issue. When Human & Rhode conducted its initial resource evaluation, Leary suggested a complete redesign of proposed structures. Leary, who previously worked on Lake Roland’s dog park and boardwalk, discovered an overgrown stream and tributary to the Jones Falls located within the park property near the southeastern boundary near Vanguard’s property. “Honoring the buffer and limiting the impact from the back of the site are crucial,” Leary says. Following the discovery of the stream, the site was largely redesigned with RRLRAIA input, placing the residential building outside the buffer and honoring the required 25-foot buffer setback.

Creating a Forest Buffer Easement (FBE) is a priority of all concerned. As stated in Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability’s (DEPS) approval letter, dated September 17, 2018, in response to Human & Rhode’s required Alternatives Analysis detailing the existence of the stream and the firm’s FBE plans, the DEPS notes, “The current use of the property predates Forest Buffer law,” citing that “…the FBE is entirely impacted by mulch stockpiles, a sediment trap/stormwater and irrigation water recycling basin.”

If the county grants the redevelopment project final approval, Hollins Organic Mulch, which leases its site, will move. Bluestem’s goal is to return to an environmentally positive use of the site from what is currently an environmentally detrimental one. As a redevelopment project, Vanguard is required to bring the FBE into compliance. “As the site stands now, there is no treatment of the run-off or FBE. There’s no question that the project will improve [the site’s environmental compliance],” Leary asserts.

The Hollins site will become a pervious pathway or “trailhead that is going to be beautified and connect to other trails in the park and allow visitors and residents to experience the reclamation,” Leary says.

Redevelopment plans also include what Bluestem residents may – and may not – grow on their porches, which could adversely affect the species in Lake Roland Park. Seeds from non-native, potentially invasive plants on Bluestem balconies could blow into Lake Roland, propagate, and possibly choke out native species. This request was a new one for Weinberg, but when he inquired of his legal team, he was happily surprised that, yes, he can restrict what future tenants can and can’t grow. “That’s the kind of thing we are thrilled to do to contribute to Lake Roland Park and the lake,” he says.

Josh Sharon attended community input meetings and heard pros and cons from neighbors about the plans and echoes the sentiments of the Bluestem team regarding community opposition. “Some people are not satisfied with the answer we have given – and they have every right to be – but we have tried to answer every question.” As he awaits the judge’s decision, Weinberg remains positive: “We’re really trying to provide something the community can benefit from. We want to do the right thing and make the property better.”

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10 COMMENTS

  1. This is the strangest “journalism” I have ever seen. This is an advertisement posing as an article? Full of Inaccuracies and lies. Calling a development project of nearly 100% impervious surface, “environmentally sound” alternative to mulch? Shame on you, Fishbowl. Shame on Baltimore County for letting this travesty get this far.

    • Hi Deirdre, Yes, this is a form of advertisement known as a sponsored post. It has become a common practice, especially online, as revenue sources for journalism have shrunk. It has always been part of our business model and will continue to be, although probably less so going forward, as we develop alternative revenue sources.

      I encourage you to address in the comments specific inaccuracies you see in the article.

  2. Hi Susan.

    I have no problem with Fishbowl accepting money from developers. However I thought Fishbowl was positioned as journalism. Journalism is based on truth and science; advertisement is a company trying to sell a product. It appears that you are purposefully mixing the two for the benefit of the advertiser. This is called fake news.

    Even the fine print, which is supposed to distinguish the advertisement from journalism, is vague and misleading, using words such as “post”, “story” and “sponsor”. Your job is to represent both sides of the issue; something a developer cannot do on their own. On this the Fishbowl has failed miserably and, in my opinion, dangerously.

  3. the fact that the developer needs to hide his advertising behind a false venue that appears to be an article on the project shows how this organization operates.
    the owners of bluestem project depend on false news , not truth and science to sell their project.
    Since day one, the lie that this project is a “downzoning” from the present use is false.
    industrial use at this site is so restricted as to be almost unusable if environmental laws had been enforced, instead of rigging the zoning to the most intensive allowable in the county ,and violating open space requirements.

  4. And PS. This “article” is in no way a “debate” as implied in its title. It is a one-sided argument written by a developer poised to make millions of dollars.

  5. The Falls Road corridor is already so heavily trafficked as to be near gridlock during rush hours – particularly around Northern Parkway – just south. This is in spite of its running nearly parallel to 83. If a huge project such as this adds even more population density, the traffic situation will become even worse and Falls Road might have to be widened, affecting the quality of life for residents both in the city and county along the corridor.

  6. I have decent familiarity with this project, and the article strikes me as a fair representation of both sides’ arguments. Bear in mind that I own property very close to the proposed development, and have no stake in it whatsoever.

    A developer is going to make millions of dollars? There’s a shocker. This particular development group (and I’ve encountered many) may not be Mother Teresa, but they’re a heck of a long way from Genghis Khan. I don’t find this article misleading in the slightest.

  7. As a resident living near this proposed development, the environment is of course a major concern and I appreciate the developers efforts in this one aspect of the project Where are the reports and studies with regard to the TRAFFIC situation on Falls Road? The additional traffic it will bring to the Falls Road corridor from Greenspring Station through the Mount Washington area to Northern Parkway will be even more horrendous than it is currently. This article did not present any information on a traffic in the area. Has an official traffic study been completed for this area? It would be helpful to see the results of such a study.

  8. I also wonder why this appears to be an article, i.e. real journalism, when it was written by the developer. Fishbowl should not publish things like this that are misleading to say the least. Furthermore, it is unconscionable that this development is characterized as environmentally sensitive. There is, for example, almost no buffer around much of the development. Water polluted by gasoline and oil and other toxic substances can flow right into the parkland and from there make their way to Lake Roland, where people actually fish. Furthermore, although it is not mentioned in this account, spaces like the swimming pool, clearly for residents and not open to the public, is to be counted as the “open space” required by the county. In other words, the developer profits at the expense of Baltimore County citizens. Baltimore County needs to revisit the development process to make sure that the needs and concerns of all citizens are taken into account, not just those of developers. And Baltimore Fishbowl should also take those needs and concerns into account nad, at the very least, print the “other side” of one-sided, controversial issues such as developments.

  9. Doug Carroll and Deidre Smith, you sound like Donald Trump with your accusations of fake news. If you have specific inaccuracies of the article, based in “truth and science,” you should note them. Otherwise, you should be silent. Do you live in the bare hills area? How will you be affected by this development?

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