With hundreds of wooded acres, walking trails and a dog park, Lake Roland Park has served as a green retreat for Robert Macht and others for years.
Now a Baltimore developer's plan to turn a sleepy Falls Road shopping strip that backs into the park into a bustling "village," with restaurants, offices and six-story apartment building, has Macht and others worried about the project's impact on the increasingly popular park, the environment and traffic.
"You're going to the park. You want to commune with nature. It's beautiful and undisturbed, and now there's going to be this enormous building," said Macht, 58, who visits the park almost daily. "This thing is really just a behemoth."
The six-acre parcel at 6241-47 Falls Road, just north of the city in an area known as Bare Hills, is currently home to stores such as Falls Road Running and offices, as well as Hollins Organic Products, a mulch operation and storage yard.
Vanguard Retail Development, known for shopping centers anchored by Giant Foods and Wegmans in Pikesville, Owings Mills and Waverly, bought the property in March for $4.25 million.
The firm's plan, dubbed the "Village of Lake Roland," would add 140 apartments to the edge of the park and overhaul the site's commercial buildings, renovating or building new about 40,000 square feet designed to house restaurants, offices and retail such as a grocery store.
Leonard Weinberg II, the principal at Vanguard, said the goal is to increase access to the park, attract shoppers from nearby office and residential developments, and create a more walkable Bare Hills area.
"We're very aware of the importance of the park … and that is why we want to make a great project," he said.
Vanguard, which Weinberg said plans to work with an undisclosed partner on the residential component, won rezoning last summer that allows for an unlimited number of residential units on the site but limits other commercial uses. Now it is seeking permission to include 420 parking spaces — 560 would typically be required — and have residential units on the first floor of one of the buildings.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has not taken a position on the project, a spokeswoman said.
But some county departments, including the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, have raised concerns in early review, noting that the apartment building would rise next to a stream that flows into the Jones Falls. The river already barrels downstream during storms, creating flooding problems.
Neighbors echoed those worries, asking for a reduced height, fewer units and more green space.
"What I would like to see is a more attractive design that is more environmentally friendly, that includes many, many fewer apartments or residential units," said Caroline McClure, who lives on Falls Road.
The Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association supported the rezoning in a formal agreement filed in land records. But critics said the discussions were not widely known.
More than 60 people attended a public meeting last week, many of them there to register concerns.
Bob Smith, 73, sits on the board of the Rockland Ridge homeowners association, which falls in the bigger improvement association's territory.
He said his board was unaware of Vanguard's proposal until last week and noted it is not in line with the improvement association's vision that the Baltimore County Council adopted in 2011, which called for the Hollins Organic site to be purchased and turned into a western entrance for the park.
"I'm extremely disappointed with what happened," Smith said at the meeting. "We have serious problems, and because we just learned about the project, we're behind the curve."
Elise Butler, who chairs the Ruxton-Riderwood-Lake Roland Area Improvement Association's zoning committee, defended the group, pointing to emails and other updates. She said the organization had been worried about the Hollins Organic site, which has drawn complaints about run-off, and wanted to limit uses there, avoiding a gas station or big-box store, which were allowed under the previous zoning.
Acquiring the property was not realistic, given its price, she said.
"Rather than bury our heads in the sand and say we weren't going to work with the developer, or suggest that he donate the land … we really had to look through the lens of reality, and I'm glad that we did," she said. "What we see is an enormous opportunity for a mixed-use development at that location, one that is compatible … with the park."
The Lake Roland Nature Council, which also was involved in the early discussions, declined to comment.
Baltimore County Councilwoman Vicki Almond sponsored the rezoning and would have to sponsor another bill for the development to move forward. She said she does not think the project will hurt the park, but wants to let the process play out.
"I want the community input meetings to continue. I want people to continue to talk and then we'll evaluate the situation," she said.
Weinberg said the property's redevelopment will bring it up to code with current standards for stormwater runoff and traffic, an improvement on the current situation, Weinberg said.
Vanguard also has offered to add connections to walking trails from its property and to construct a parking lot on some of the parkland, to serve as a base for the people who flock to the area, lining Falls Road with cars on many days.
The proposal was intended to create a better western entrance, but, to some, the idea adds insult to injury.
"The developer gets more parking, in essence on park land, and more traffic to his center," said Macht, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years. "So he gets a lot and the neighborhood gets nothing."
Weinberg said the firm will try to incorporate community concerns, spending the next months getting approvals and permits before breaking ground in November 2018. Construction could take as long as 18 months
"The whole idea is to get feedback, to get input and to go back to our design team and try to think about the project, take the comments … and see what we can do," he said.