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.
“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.”
Snotty comments like this don’t help the cause. When you add up the 15 minutes five times a week, twice a day, for a year, that represents a vast amount of wasted time, Ms. Sehnert, something like 130 hours!
In addition to the 148 apartments, Belvedere Tower is also looking to add another 50 units. Don’t quite now know… So, that’s almost 200 units added.
This forum and discussion was long overdue.
The City Council and Planning Commission should be ashamed of their actions, subverting the interests of entire neighborhoods to the economic interests of a single individual.
Their defense ? A letter of community support, signed by one non-existent entity which long ago forfeited its charter and which, in signing this document, may possibly have committed a crime.
Are there NO standards of conduct and ethics in this city ? Is “pay to play” the rule of law here?
Common sense would dictate pressing the pause button as one participant mentioned. We have, all of us, been duped – Councilman Schleifer among us. For shame.
I work on Falls Road, and had no idea this was planned. Last Friday I saw the yellow signs on Northern Parkway. When I went to the website, and saw the info, I was mortified. The traffic is untenable as it is. I get “Mumified”, as per Sehnert, every day – a few times, at the Falls Road Northern Pkwy intersection. There CANNOT be more development.
The answers given by the elected official, Councilman Yitzy, were an after the fact answer. He asked us all to forget the past history, and move on with what may be best. What a load of crap!
I know that he would not give a letter of support in another area to a homeowner for zoning, even though that neighborhood supported the person. Why? He said that there was ONE person who opposed it, so he has to be neutral.
Seriously?? And then he introduces a PUD that NOBODY wants and opposes?
Hypocrisy – follow the money…….
Sehnert allowed herself to be conned by the developer. She needs to admit that to herself. He filled her head with false compromises, half truths, non truths and empty threats. She was naive enough to believe the things he told her without checking the facts and verifying his statements.
Yitzy is in over his head and he didn’t gain any sympathy at the meeting. The developer has conned him too. The more senior council members and mayor need to know about his poor judgement.
Sehnert said she signed the PUD agreement because “the property owners should be able to make a profit”….WHAT??? Why would a neighborhood association president let the needs and desires of a developer/land owner trump those of the members of the neighborhood association? Oh wait I forgot…. Sehnert invited the DEVELOPER TO JOIN the North Roland Park Association. A real Einstein move.
Thank you to all who attended the first open meeting about this project. How can the developer get permitted to do a “by right” building on land that he does not own before June 5th when it takes 9-12 months to get a building permit in Baltimore city? This has been the false argument used to scare the neighborhood into agreeing to things they already have such as no new traffic on St Georges Rd., and the developer and his agent have skillfully divided and conquered the opponents while appearing to make concessions in secretive closed door meetings. If he had honored what he originally proposed, which was a building of the same height the neighborhood most likely would have agreed.
The Belvedere, now called the Falls, is a high density 1960’s hi-rise that is completely out character, and style with its low density neighborhood. As someone at the meeting said, it never should have been built. Belvedere 2, called Overlook, doubles the unattractiveness and the density. Similar buildings built around the same time on MLK Blvd were dynamited in 1999. Far more human low rise housing was put in its place. Yitzy needs to pull the PUD so that there can be an honest conversation about the future of the property. State Farm has declared the intersection at Northern and Falls the most dangerous in the state. In 36 years on Poplar Hill, I have traveled that stretch of Falls Road thousands of times. It is deadly. Hard to imagine how Shelley Shenert can pass the problem off so cavalierly – as if an additional 15 minutes on top of what we already suffer is unimportant.
More succinctly you’re saying, I am for more space, beauty, trees, and parking for the rich and less for the rabble. Let the rabble eat cake?
People who are slaves to their automobiles seem to forget that all the choices they made in life that led to automobile enslavement were choices. Don’t want to be stuck in traffic? Walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transportation. Your inconvenience is your problem. Commiserate with fellow automobile enthusiasts/slaves about how your choices have negatively effected everybody involved. That would be the best starting point for this conversation.
Everything is about traffic, and this proposed development sits right at a very bad intersection. How come DOT hasn’t been forced to improve this intersection? 150 extra units (or 150 less units) isn’t going to make that intersection not suck. People are lumping in the development with another problem, and deciding on the former based on the latter. How is a site on a main road right next to a highway entrance and a light rail station not a good place for high density housing? If not there, then where? The problem is the intersection. There are tons of intersections in the state that carry more volume than this one but aren’t a nightmare like this one. Traffic engineering is the problem, not the new development. Regardless of whether or not the tower gets built, your problem is still there.
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