A rendering of a park that had been planned for the base of the Roland Water Tower, viewed from Evans Chapel Road. The plans will now have to be revised to leave intact a roadway that runs through the park. Credit: Unknown Studio.

Mayor Brandon Scott has decided to keep the roadway open at the base of the Roland Water Tower, an area where some north Baltimore residents have been working to create a car-free park.

The decision is a victory for residents of Hoes Heights and Heathbrook, two communities that use the service road for vehicular access to their homes from Roland Avenue, and whose residents objected to plans for eliminating it for a park.

It means that planners of the park will have to come up with a new design for the city-owned property at the base of the water tower, where a $1.5 million restoration was completed in 2021.

“The mayor made the decision himself, on the basis of equity to the Hoes Heights community, which uses this road fully and regularly, and I think that’s a good thing that everybody should embrace moving forward,” said Destry Jarvis, a member of the Roland Park Presbyterian Church’s Racial Justice Task Force, during a meeting of the Roland Park Civic League on Wednesday.

A conservationist, parks advocate and co-author of “National Parks Forever,” Jarvis has followed the Roland Water Tower planning process closely. Now that the roadway will stay, he said, plans are in the works to name it after Grandison Hoe, a freed slave for whom Hoes Heights is named.

City Council members James Torrence and Odette Ramos confirmed Jarvis’ report about the road in email messages today.

“The decision is to keep the road open,” Torrence said. “The decision was made by the Mayor’s office.”

“It’s open forever,” Ramos said.

Located at 4210 Roland Ave., the 1905 tower marks the nexus of four North Baltimore communities: Hoes Heights, Heathbrook, Roland Park and Rolden.

The mayor’s decision ends a period of uncertainty about the fate of the city-owned parcel at the tower’s base, land that’s maintained by the Roland Park Community Foundation under an agreement with the city.

Last June, a community steering committee unveiled what it called a final design for the proposed park, which is intended to be a family-friendly gathering spot that will complement the restored tower.

At the unveiling of the design, a group called Friends of the Roland Water Tower said it would launch a campaign to raise $450,000 to make the park plan a reality and that it aims to complete improvements by 2025.

The U-shaped service road consists primarily of two lanes that connect Roland Avenue with Evans Chapel Road and frame the water tower, one lane going westbound and one going eastbound. The recommended design, by Unknown Studio, called for the lanes on the north and south sides of the tower to be eliminated and replaced with pedestrian walkways framing the new park, too narrow for cars to use. The green space in between would have park benches, chess tables, sculptures, light poles, a garden with native perennials and a “flexible lawn” for concerts and flea markets, among other features.

The idea behind taking out the road, planners said, was to increase the amount of green space around the tower and to prevent motorists from using the area as a shortcut from Roland Avenue to Evans Chapel Road and points west, as they have in the past. They said eliminating car traffic would make the area safer for pedestrians and help give it a more park-like feel, and that the Maryland Historical Trust approved the symmetrical design. They said the service roads don’t meet city standards for public streets and would be costly to upgrade and maintain.

But residents of Hoes Heights and Heathbrook said they have historically used the road to get to their homes west of Roland Avenue and don’t want it eliminated. They said there’s no other road from Roland Avenue to Evans Chapel Road in the long stretch between Cold Spring Lane and 41st Street, but the final design didn’t take their concerns into account.

The road is “our gateway to the city,” Hoes Heights resident Eleanor Matthews told WBAL-TV. “It’s our gateway to our homes.”

Hoes Heights residents, organized as the Hoes Heights Action Committee, have argued that the area at the tower’s base can and should have both a green space and a safe road. They said they felt the decision to eliminate the road raised issues of equity and racial justice, because Hoes Heights has traditionally been a Black community, whereas the proponents of a car free zone mostly live in Roland Park, which historically forbade home sales to Black homebuyers.

In response to the complaints, Torrence and Ramos called for the road elimination plan to be reconsidered. That rethinking process, which involved a series of community meetings starting last fall, led to the mayor’s decision to keep the road open, now and in any redesign of the area.

Jarvis encouraged residents at the Civic League meeting to get involved in the new planning effort. “Everybody that’s interested should participate,” he said.

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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