On an unseasonably warm October evening, under the harsh fluorescent glare of the Roland Park Elementary School auditorium, hundreds of local residents sat, stood, and sweat last night as they heard Keswick Multi-Care’s proposal to build a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) on land purchased from Baltimore Country Club (BCC). The scene was a bit like the Roman spectacles in which captives were allowed to spar in the Coliseum before being mercilessly fed to the lions. After Roland Park residents were finished with it, the Keswick plan, which needs a Planned Use Development permit (PUD) and the approval of the Mayor and Baltimore City Council to go forward, appeared to be dead in the water, and even the BCC president seemed to be open to alternatives.
After last night, there can be no doubt: Roland Park is nearly unanimous—and fairly rabid—in its opposition to Keswick’s plan. Outside the school, giant banners with slogans like “Kids Like It Green” and “Our History Deserves a Future” filled nearly every square inch of public space as locals filed into the school, almost all of them wearing neon yellow t-shirts—to match the lights?—reading “Neighborhoods Matter!”
Libby Bowerman, chief executive officer of Keswick, started her presentation by introducing Baltimore Country Club president John Daue, who would remain a focal point for much of the evening. He declared that BCC was committed to Roland Park and suggested that 90 percent of BCC's members had voted in favor of the Keswick plan precisely because it left so much green space, it was designed to fill a need for senior housing in the community and it fit in architecturally with its surroundings. He aroused the first boos of the night with his submission that BCC's decision to sell to Keswick “wasn’t about the money.” He suggested, as many on the Keswick side did throughout the night, that BCC could build single-family homes on the 17-acre plot of land without City Council approval. “Not to threaten, but we have other alternatives,” he said. More boos and a shout of “Build the houses!” Indeed, it became clear that the community would prefer more single-family housing to Keswick's plan to build an institution. He dismissed the community’s suggestion that the property be turned into a park—“It’s not going to happen,” he said—but his opposition seemed to wilt by the end of the evening.
Next, the architect who was hired to design the Keswick facility stood up to explain their plans. Likely wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into, his shaky red laser pointer outlined the planned facility, noting that the planners had taken care to leave as much green space as possible: Of the 17-acre plot, 5 would be developed as the CCRC, 5 more would be landscaped gardens, and 7 would be left completely untouched. Bucolic renderings of the buildings and surroundings showed that, as Mr. Daue suggested, the plans were be consistent with Roland Park’s architecture and leafy environs. Next up, a traffic study was presented that showed little adverse affects from the development, and Bowerman returned to reel off the benefits to the community and city from the Keswick plan: 500 jobs during construction, 158 permanent jobs upon completion, a $500,000 per year payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the city (since, as a non-profit, Keswick is not required to pay taxes on its health services), and $1.18 million in property taxes beginning in 2015. And with that, Keswick was rushed away from the podium, held close to a 30-minute time limit.
To start the presentation by the Roland Park Civic League—who have organized the community in opposition to the Keswick proposal—RPCL president Dr. Phil Spevak introduced a lawyer from the community. He got the night’s first standing ovation, stating that, unlike other communities, Roland Park wasn’t looking to develop: “Basically, we want to continue on the trust that’s been carried on for the last 100 years," he said.
Spevak then presented a video called “Roland Park: The Keswick Issue” (DVD copies of which were distributed to all attendees at the close of the evening—these people are nothing if not organized). The video opens with kids running across verdant fields with prosaic music in the background. The music continues as residents sound off on the unique character of Roland Park, designed by Edward Bouton and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to be a green oasis within the city.
Next up was a red-meat presentation by Ken Rice, chairman of the Roland Park Community Foundation. He elicited gasps when comparing Keswick’s planned 466,000 square feet of developed space to the Legg Mason tower downtown, which, he suggested, uses only slightly more space, and the Mondawmin Mall, which uses less. He discounted many of Keswick’s claims, suggesting the traffic study was incomplete and that the green space left over after development would be minimal (the manicured gardens would fenced in and only visible to residents “via helicopter”). To drive home his point, he showed a map with a to-scale version of M&T Bank Stadium in place of the Keswick development, insisting it would only take up slightly more space (“and includes a manicured garden right in the middle,” he poked, pointing to the football field.) He further worked the crowd, suggesting that the space could draw $4.4 million in real estate taxes, that the $650,000 entry fee for the CCRC would price out most local seniors, and that if a PUD was granted, the land could be used to build anything, including office buildings or industrial towers.
With the crowd sufficiently frenzied in opposition, the Alternative Land-Use Chair suggested that the community was willing to buy the property and turn it into a public park. Tufaro returned and got a standing ovation when he spoke directly to the Baltimore Country Club: “If you’re willing to sell it to home buyers, who would pay fair market value, sell it to us—we’re prepared to pay fair-market value.” He then showed a proposed funding plan that would include $1.25 to $3 million raised from the community, $4 to $9 million from foundations and land trusts, and $0.5 to $2 million in public funds, that could equal Keswick offer of $12.5 million.
Such an alternative seemed more likely after Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who represents Roland Park, stepped to the podium (receiving another standing ovation) and made absolutely clear that the Baltimore City Council would not approve a Planned Use Development permit (PUD) for Keswick. Wearing a “Keep the Park in Roland Park” t-shirt, she declared “I will not introduce any re-zoning or PUD legislation for this project,” and mentioned that she had received 515 e-mails opposing the plan and just 19 supporting it (including 10 suspiciously received the day before the meeting). “My colleagues 100 percent respect my decision and that includes the president of the City Council.” With no chance of Council approval, the Keswick proposal, it seemed to everyone present, was essentially dead
Spevak read a letter from Councilwoman Mary Pat Clark, who couldn’t attend the meeting, in which she said “I support Councilwoman Middleton in her pledge,” and a message from deputy mayor Andrew Frank, who attended most of the meeting, suggesting “everything that was necessary for due process has occurred” and “the Mayor has all the info she needs” to make a decision.
Once the question and answer session started, community members zeroed in on BCC president John Daue. The first questioner asked why his group would not consider a public park proposal from the community. He initially responded that he was committed to the proposal from Keswick, which whom BCC had a contract, and that 90 percent of the membership approved because they thought it was best for the community. When pressed, he suggested “Our members feel that a public park is not compatible with a private country club.” The candid if somewhat vague explanation echoed the sentiment in a letter Daue sent to the RPCL that was circulated at the meeting: “With it’s uncontrolled access and potential for intensive recreational activities, the Club would not consider a sale for [a public park],” he wrote.
Questioner after questioner pushed Daue on his opposition to the community’s interest in buying the land for a public park, and he continually stated BCC’s commitment to Keswick, which whom they had signed a contract. After Councilwoman Middleton's speech, the failure of Keswick’s proposal seemed inevitable, and community members’ attention turned to alternative uses for the land. When Keswick CEO Bowerman made it to the microphone, she looked utterly defeated. “I am woefully and sorrowfully disappointed in this meeting tonight,” she said, suggesting that the community did not seem willing to consider their plan. Keswick had brought engineers, traffic experts, architects and others with insight into the plan, in hopes that the company could persuade the assembled that they had the best interests of the community in mind, but it seems, she said, “you aren’t interested in talking.”
Dr. Spevak responded that, after months of reviewing Keswick’s documents and plans, “We’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t any more talking to do [with Keswick].” Two speakers from the audience did responded favorably to Keswick, one who suggested the community openly consider their plan, with the alternatives in mind, and another, who folks in the crowd identified as a BCC member, who angrily suggested the assembled were “abandoning the elderly” in the community.
Mostly, the questions returned to Daue, who seemed to hold the key to the community’s efforts to turn the property into a public park. They continually acknowledged that it was private property and they wanted to pay fair-market value, to make it financially smart for BCC to sell them the property.
Finally, at the clock approached 10 p.m.—three hours after the meeting opened—a questioner asked Mr. Daue point-blank: “If you cannot go forward with Keswick, will you extend an invitation to Dr. Spevak [to hear RPCL’s proposal for a public park].” Exasperated, Daue stood and said simply “Yes.” He relished one of his few rounds of applause for the night, sat down and said, “Now I’m going home.”
Stay tuned for a Q and A with Roland Park Civic League president Dr. Spevak on next steps. Please suggest questions for him in the comments section....