A $450,000 plan to create a family-friendly park at the base of the Roland Water Tower has been put on hold, while elected officials address questions about the “final design” that was unveiled last summer.
Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos said at a recent meeting of the Roland Park Civic League that the design is being reconsidered after some residents complained that it called for the elimination of a roadway that provides access from Roland Avenue to two communities west of the water tower, Hoes Heights and Heathbrook.
Ramos said she and Councilman James Torrence, whose district includes homes that would be affected by the road closure, want to get “more input” from residents who live in all directions of the tower before the park project moves ahead.
“Councilman Torrence…and I are going to redo the process,” Ramos said at the Civic League meeting. “We are going to be doing a new survey…. I just talked to DGS [the city’s Department of General Services] this morning about what they’re willing to be doing and how they want to be a part of it, so it is ongoing. We will not have a solution tomorrow.”
The park is being planned to complement a $1.5 million restoration of the city-owned water tower at 4210 Roland Ave. that was completed last year. The tower rises at a point in north Baltimore where four communities come together – Roland Park, Rolden, Hoes Heights and Hampden — and the park is intended to be an amenity serving all of them.
The city-owned property had been largely off-limits for more than a decade because the 1905 tower was in poor condition and surrounded by a chain link fence put up to protect passersby from falling debris. With the tower’s restoration and removal of the fence, community leaders saw potential for making its base more of a community gathering spot.
The Roland Park Community Foundation has an agreement with the city to maintain the land around the tower. The Friends of the Roland Water Tower, a community group whose mission is to provide stewardship for the tower and the grounds around it, has set a goal of raising funds and completing improvements by 2025.
The so-called “final design,” by Unknown Studio, was unveiled on June 26 after a planning process led by a volunteer steering committee comprised of residents from multiple neighborhoods. It was selected from two finalist options, a symmetrical plan preferred by a state preservation agency, and a less formal, asymmetrical plan.
The chosen plan would add elements such as park benches, chess tables, sculptures, light poles, 14 trees, a garden with native perennials and a “flexible lawn” along Roland Avenue for concerts, flea markets and other gatherings. It also calls for the removal of a U-shaped service road that provides a way for drivers to get from Roland Avenue to Evans Chapel Road, so the amount of green space around the tower can be increased and cars won’t cut through as they can now.
Residents of Hoes Heights and Heathbrook said during the planning process that they didn’t want to lose the access to their homes that the roadway provides, because 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 plan called for the service road to be replaced with a pedestrian walkway too narrow for cars.
After the design was unveiled and residents saw that it called for the road’s removal, residents continued to object and articles about the controversy appeared in the Baltimore Brew and Baltimore Banner.
Ramos said at the Civic League meeting that she and Torrence, whose district includes Hoes Heights, want to get more information and address the concerns.
“You’ve all probably seen there’s been some controversy around whether or not to keep the road open,” she said. “We’re still working through that. There were people complaining a little bit about the process.”
As part of gathering information and redoing the process, she said, “literally the councilman and I are going to go door to door…to get feedback.”
Ramos said she knows there are two sides.
“It’s interesting, because we had an event there a couple of Sundays ago,” she said. “Two hundred people there. It was amazing. So it is a place where people come to gather and come together. But I also understand the access to Hoes Heights is very difficult.”
Ramos said city officials are taking other steps to address traffic concerns, too.
“We have traffic calming going in on 41st and Evans Chapel as well as redoing the intersection of Roland and 40th to try to make it a little bit easier to go around,” she said.
Ramos said in an email message this week that the door-to-door portion of their information gathering has been delayed because Torrence has been on bereavement leave. She said Torrence is now back from his leave and “we will be working hard to get this done before it gets too cold.”
Complicating the redesign process is that any new plan must be approved by both the Maryland Historical Trust, a state agency that has already accepted the plan unveiled in June, and Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), which hasn’t yet reviewed the project in public session. A CHAP meeting tentatively scheduled for October has been postponed.
Ramos said she doesn’t know who would pay for additional design work, if that is required. “It is my hope that one of the designs already done will be chosen,” she said, referring to alternate plans that were explored but not chosen as a finalist.
Another issue, she said, is figuring out who will pay to maintain or upgrade any road that isn’t eliminated. At present, the service road doesn’t meet the city’s “Complete Streets” standards for public thoroughfares and is under the jurisdiction of the city’s general services department rather than the transportation department.
The expense of keeping the road open “is something that has to be thought through,” Ramos said in her email. “The road has to comply with Complete Streets now; there are not exemptions. That means proper striping, and a pedestrian/bike/wheelchair lane on each side of the road. That was not in the park design, but would have to be in the road design.”
For now, she said, the south lane framing the tower has been closed but the north lane remains open as an access road from Falls Road to Evans Chapel Road, for those who use it to get to their homes. She added that traffic calming measures at 41st Street and Evans Chapel Road “should be installed in the next six weeks.”