By Ashley de Sampaio Ferraz
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
East Towson is in danger of disappearing. At least, that’s what its residents are afraid of.
The historic neighborhood is opposing a proposed 56-unit affordable housing development called Red Maple Place that would rest on a 2.5-acre plot of land between 413 E. Pennsylvania Ave. and Joppa Road.
Residents who oppose the development have made it clear that they are not against the inclusion of low-income individuals in their community, but fear that the renters will be transient individuals who will not be interested in becoming part of the community itself.
Michele Yendall, a member of the board of directors for Harris Hill Condominiums, which borders the property Red Maple Place is to be built on, said she originally moved to Harris Hill because it itself was a low-income development. She said she has lived in the community for 25 years and doesn’t believe the new residents will want to stick around.
“Plugging people into apartments that are affordable for them, no matter how, doesn’t make them members of the community,” Yendall said. “It doesn’t give them a sense of the community. They’re there for a one-year lease, maybe longer, but maybe not. The design of their building doesn’t indicate that they’re going to be members of our community.”
Founded by freed slaves in the 1850s, East Towson was once a vibrant place with many families calling it home. As time went on, however, the historically black community suffered, as younger generations moved out of small family homes and newer, bigger buildings took their place.
Residents say Red Maple Place will continue that trend. The proposal was first made in 2018 and detailed a 4-story building with one bedroom, two bedroom, and three bedroom units available for rent. The apartments are said to run from $800 to $1,500 per month. The project needs the approval of Baltimore County’s Administrative Law Judge before it can move forward.
A community input meeting took place on Oct. 29, when community members voiced their concerns. The developer now has one year to submit a final proposal, and says Red Maple Place will take a year to build once construction begins.
Residents of East Towson say Red Maple Place’s proposed design is yet another reason it seems out of place in this tight-knit community.
David Riley, president of the Knollwood association, a neighborhood just south of East Towson, said it is clear from the building plans that there is no architectural tie-in with the rest of East Towson.
He compared the Red Maple proposal with the Bosley Mansion, a high-end luxury condominium project in West Towson.
“Look at the considerations that the developer gave the [West Towson] community,” Riley said. “Take that history, and compare it to what’s happening here, and the community concerns that aren’t being addressed.”
Kathy Ebner, president and CEO of Homes for America, a nonprofit from Annapolis that is proposing the Red Maple Place project, said the organization is making a strong effort to engage with the community and address its concerns.
“The county has a strong need for affordable housing in the Towson area,” Ebner said. “Red Maple Place will fill this need and does so in a way that will provide a high-quality, low-density, on land that permits approximately twice the density, residential housing option in East Towson. Additionally, with the development, more than 70 percent of the site will be subject to a perpetual environmental easement or remain as open space.”
Yet, some members of Towson’s community do not believe that Homes for America is doing enough to protect the environmental features of the site. This may be because the plot of land where Red Maple Place is to be built is currently home to a forested area and a sensitive wetland.
Beth Miller, a member of the Green Towson Alliance and co-chair of its Downtown Towson Development work group, said the organization has sent multiple letters to Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection & Sustainability about the dangers of a forest buffer variance that was granted to the project.
“When we become concerned, particularly concerned, is when there are environmental laws and the developers are given a variance from that law,” Miller said. “So that’s what’s happening on this site. There’s a stream, and there’s a wetland, and there’s a required forest buffer. The buffer that is required is a 100-foot buffer from the wetland boundary, and the developer applied for a variance to reduce it to 25 feet, and that variance was granted.”
Although the Green Towson Alliance is against the variance of the buffer, it says it is not against the construction of the building itself. The alliance said it believes there is a way to develop the site while also protecting the environment.
“We are continuing to advocate for this win-win solution,” Miller said. “Where it could be a taller, but shorter building that would not encroach into the forest buffer. We even provided an architectural scheme showing this possible alternative.”
The Green Towson Alliance has not heard back from the Department of Environmental Protection & Sustainability, Miller said. She said the group recently submitted its concerns to the Baltimore County Office of Planning and is waiting for a response.
Disturbing the environment is not the only negative physical impact Red Maple Place may have on the community, opponents say. Neighborhood members say they also fear increased flooding and traffic in the area.
County Councilman David Marks, who represents the district that East Towson is located in, said he understands why East Towson’s residents are so opposed to the development.
“Those residents are correct,” Marks said. “I believe the project size should shrink and we should make more of an effort to preserve the green space between the proposed project and the Harris Hill community.”
Marks also said the project is a result of a 2016 conciliation agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that requires the county to take any and all steps necessary to encourage the development of 1,000 affordable housing units within the county over a period of 12 years.
“The County Council did not approve this agreement, and I certainly disagree with many parts of it,” Marks said. “The construction of the project will provide affordable housing in a census tract identified as needing that type of housing.”
East Towson residents do not feel that legislative decisions such as this one take into account the impact a project such as Red Maple Place will have on the place they call home.
Nancy Goldring, a community leader whose family has resided in East Towson for over 130 years, said that she believes East Towson is a community that is being forgotten. She worries that this may be a result of the community being established by freed slaves, which is a part of America’s history that many do not want to remember.
“They are systematically attempting to erase this area off of the Towson map,” Goldring said. “The historical significance, unless this is your history, is irrelevant. It’s the type of history that only the people back here are invested in.”
For now, East Towson’s residents are making it clear that they will not let their community disappear without a fight. Goldring shared that their ultimate goal would be to receive a historic designation for the entire neighborhood.
“If we were already designated a historic community, this wouldn’t even be an issue,” Goldring said.