From the Baltimore Business Journal
By Jay Brodie – Contributor
Dec 15, 2017, 7:15am
Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood is on the verge.
It has been there for a very, very, very long time. Not a year, or five years or even 10 — for decades it has been on the verge of becoming one of our finest, diverse communities.
I remember what a revelation it was when, as a Baltimore Polytechnic Institute student in the 1950s, I visited with a classmate who lived on Brooks Lane. The buildings from Madison Avenue and Eutaw Place on the West, to Mt. Royal Terrace on the East, were memorable and inspiring to this young architect.
The Grande Dames, the Emersonian, Esplanade and Temple Gardens shined with New York City scale and quality. Manheimer’s Pharmacy offered treats as well as medicine. Whitelock Street featured Herling’s grocery store. Eutaw Place was graced by the Mercantile Club and a magnificent synagogue. And the views toward Druid Hill Park and its sparking reservoir with the Hendler Fountain were outstanding.
In my post-college years in the early 1960s, we rented in the three-story, white stucco-clad apartment building at 753 Lake Drive. Three bedrooms and a glassed-in front porch for $100 a month, and congenial, interesting neighbors. Only the opportunity to buy our first home for our expanding family enticed us to move.
But that apparent urban tranquillity didn’t last. In a relatively brief period of time, by the mid-1970s, a significant number of the long-standing, middle-class, predominantly Jewish families had relocated to the northwest outer city or the more recently-built suburbs.
Many of the large houses had too much space for a contemporary single family and were increasingly costly to maintain. As a result they were cut up into smaller apartments. And as the housing stock aged, with little new capital investment, deterioration spread visibly.
On North Avenue, the Linden movie theater and the once-popular Nate’s & Leon’s delicatessen closed, the Mercantile Club moved out and drugs and drug-related crime moved in. Drug dealers saw the area’s convenient access to the Jones Falls Expressway and stashed their wares in the vacant garages along the alleys. Assaults and homicides became too-regular news. The negative trends led to designation for Urban Renewal and Model Cities programs.
After meetings held by residents with community organizers and city planners from the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, a physical plan evolved and was approved by the City Council and the Mayor. (Note: I was deputy commissioner from 1968-1976 and commissioner from 1977-1983).
Implementation brought low-interest rehabilitation loans, a city multipurpose center in the renovated Norwegian Seamen’s Home on its hill overlooking Park Avenue, parks and playgrounds on Madison and Linden avenues and cooperative housing in the form of the Reservoir Hill Mutual Homes.
Without a doubt, the most radical change was city acquisition and demolition in several blocks along North Avenue. New construction followed. A union-sponsored daycare center at Park Avenue and a medical office building at Eutaw Place followed. The largest and most visible development — with a mix of uses unusual for that time — was named Madison Park North: several hundred rental apartments subsidized so as to be affordable to moderate-income families. At its center was a two-story building with a public school built in the air rights above a grocery store. A few blocks away, the Housing Authority fostered Lakeview Towers for low-income seniors.
With these major steps forward, wasn’t Reservoir Hill on the verge of revitalization?
Then the harsh reality of recent years intervened — especially in the unanticipated decline of Madison Park North. The scourge of drugs infected too many residents, crime increased and spread, a list of city housing code violation grew longer. For some, the troubled project represented the area’s continuing problems. But what happened next produced, in my view, an exciting possibility.
With pressure from the city and from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the previous owner sold the property under an agreement providing that the remaining occupants be relocated — with financial assistance — followed by demolition of all of the structures. Both are complete. Now, there is a clearly visible 8-plus acre site — rarely found in the city — minutes from downtown, easily accessible from all directions and just across the street from MICA’s expanding campus.
What the site demands is an imaginative mix of 21st -century uses, including public open space, and at least one north-south street to "knit "the design into the area’s traditional street pattern.
There are more positive signs. The outmoded John Eager Howard School No. 61 is being replaced by a well-designed new building, plus a renovated portion of the existing structure, through the state’s $1 billion construction program. But to be fully functional, when the school opens in a few months, designation and operation as a "community school" is imperative. Funds are available for needed upgrades to German Park on Linden Avenue. There should be much less hard surface and more soft, green space along with a roof over the existing pergola.
Recently the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development conducted a request for proposals process and selected a developer team for the city-owned lot at Druid Park Lake Drive and Linden Avenue — an important "gateway" from the north.
In each example and in all future opportunities, first there must be high aspirations. But critical to their achievement must be the community’s firm insistence on creativity from all involved — and on the best standards of quality in design, construction and management. Reservoir Hill: this is your time to go beyond the verge.
So follow the Romans still-sound advice: Carpe Diem — seize the day!