After raising $1.5 million to restore the historic Roland Water Tower, community leaders are working to create a family-friendly park around its base.
Approximately 50 North Baltimore residents gathered at the tower on Sunday to learn about the final design selected for the park and the fundraising campaign that will help pay for it.
The estimated cost of improvements is $450,000 and the recent gathering, where the final design was shown in public for the first time, served as a kickoff for the fundraising effort. The volunteer group behind the project, The Friends of Roland Water Tower, aims to raise the funds and complete construction by 2025.
“You have already raised $1.5 million for the Water Tower! Another $450 thousand will build the park!” read a message on one of the illustration boards shown at the event.
Located at 4210 Roland Ave., the city-owned parcel has been largely off-limits for more than a decade because the tower was in poor condition and surrounded by a chain link fence that was erected to protect passersby from falling debris.
The property is at the nexus of four communities: Roland Park, Rolden, Hoes Heights and Hampden. The tower was built in 1905 to provide water for Hampden but it was supplanted in the 1930s by the city’s reservoir system, which eliminated the need for water towers, and it subsequently fell into a state of disrepair.
With completion of the tower restoration work last fall, the land is no longer fenced off and community leaders have been exploring ways to make it more of a gathering spot and amenity for those who live nearby.
They hired a landscape architecture and urban design firm, Unknown Studio of Baltimore, to work with a community steering committee and draw up different proposals for improving the area. In the end, Unknown developed two options, a “symmetrical” version that was consistent with site improvements made when the tower opened, and an “asymmetrical” option with a less formal design.
The final design is the symmetrical option. According to landscape designer Dana Kash of Unknown Studio, members of the Maryland Historical Trust insisted on the more formal approach and said the alterative was a “no go” with them.
Because the Maryland Historical Trust is one of two design review groups that must approve the plan, along with the city’s preservation commission, and the community intends to seek state funding support, its stance more or less drove the decision, said Michael Falk, a member of the community steering committee that worked on the design.
The Maryland Historical Trust has approved the design presented on Sunday, and Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation is expected to review it in the fall.
The plan calls for retaining traditional features that are already on the site, such as stairs leading to the tower. It adds elements such as park benches, chess tables, “locally designed sculptures,” light poles and moveable seating. On the Roland Avenue side will be a “flexible lawn,” potentially for concerts, flea markets and other gatherings, and on the Evans Chapel Road side will be a garden with native perennials and a plaza with seating.
Two large trees are targeted for removal on the west side of the tower in conjunction with the proposed plaza, the designers say, but 14 new trees will be added around the property.
One of the biggest changes is the proposed removal of a service road around the tower that currently provides a way for drivers to get from Roland Avenue to Evans Chapel Road.
The final design calls for the service road to be removed and replaced with a narrower pedestrian walkway. But until funds are raised and construction is ready to begin, planners say, the northern lane will remain open as a temporary one-way access road from Falls Road to Evans Chapel Road, so the shortcut won’t disappear right away.
The land will continue to be owned by the City of Baltimore, and the park project will be led by The Friends of Roland Water Tower, whose board members come from Rolden, Roland Park and Hoes Heights.
The group is working to raise funds from a mix of public and private sources, including donations, grants and a state of Maryland bond bill. Its timetable calls for construction to be underway for most of 2024 and complete the following year. More information is available at rolandwatertower.org and rolandpark.org.
The final design will build on what’s already in place, said steering committee member Kirsten Johnson.
“It’s already a fabulous park,” she said at the design presentation. “But as you look at the plans, imagine what more it could [have] – more trees, flowers, benches, paths running through, playful sculptures and different types of objects.
“It is absolutely incredible to think about this tiny little space and how many different elements, both natural elements and human-made elements, could be here still with this beautiful symmetric, historically-correct design,” she said. “We’ll still have the beautiful grassy slope on [the Roland Avenue] side and the greatly-improved paved plaza on [the Evans Chapel Road] side…This is going to be a tremendous asset to the community.”