High hopes for Roland Water Tower

The Roland Water Tower rises above homes in Hoes Heights. The Maryland General Assembly appears poised to approve a $250,000 bond bill to restore the tower, as part of the capital budget. (File photo / April 9, 2012)

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she expects a deal to be reached "soon" for the Roland Park community to lease the historic Roland Water Tower from Baltimore City, which considers it surplus property with no appraised value other than the land on which it sits.

Now that the state legislature has approved a $250,000 bond bill to preserve the tower, Clarke said she is hopeful a leasing arrangement will be struck in the next two to three months, so the city can proceed with plans to preserve and restore the city-designated landmark.

Plans by the Roland Park Civic League include building a park around the tower and opening a display room of local history inside, as called for in the city-approved Greater Roland Park Master Plan.

Clarke wants a deal soon.


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"The community is ready to go," she said.

The bond bill, sponsored by the 40th District delegation, cleared the House and Senate of the Maryland legislature last week.

Phil Spevak, president of the Roland Park Civic League, called that "outstanding news."

"I can see the scaffolding already," Spevak said.

The league has long sought to fix the 107-year-old tower, a north Baltimore icon located in the Hoes Heights neighborhood at Roland Avenue and University Parkway.

Spevak said the bond bill is a matching grant, meaning that the community must raise $250,000 of its own in a dollar-for-dollar match. Restoration is expected to cost $900,000, and the park and display room are expected to cost another $300,000 to $600,000, bringing the total project cost to between $1.2 and $1.4 million.

Spevak said he is "100 percent confident" of raising the $250,000 in matching funds.

In February, he said he was optimistic that the league could raise as much as $1.4 million.

"There are things that make me very hopeful that this is attainable," Spevak said during the Greater Roland Park Chili Cook-off, a fundraiser to benefit the tower. "We've had organizations and people come forward. That makes me optimistic that we have a dynamic."

But he added, "We're not there yet."

The eight-sided, 148-foot-tall tower is crumbling at the top under the weight of accumulated pigeon guano. It was deemed structurally sound last year, however, in a city inspection after a rare earthquake in the region.

The tower, with a granite base, brick walls and limestone trim, was built in 1904 in the Italianate architectural style and was used as a water tower until the advent of the city's reservoir system in the 1930s.

The water tower is one of 15 landmarks that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the city is looking at to determine their value and to study the best uses for them. The city has hired a consultant.

The Sun reported in March that the city is considering selling or leasing the landmarks on the list, but Rawlings-Blake has since sent a letter to 40th District legislators — cc'ed to Clarke among others — saying the city has no intention of selling the Roland Water Tower or the city's other "family heirlooms."

Most of the 15 landmarks are protected by historic landmark designation, which requires developers to have their plans approved by the city before making changes, according to The Sun.

City officials said in March they want to turn the landmarks, also including Cylburn Mansion at Cylburn Arboretum, into profitable enterprises, if possible, given the bad shape some of the landmarks are in.

"All these landmarks are beautiful, and I hope we can put them to productive use," City Comptroller Joan Pratt told The Sun.

However, Pratt added, "We have to decide whether we should dispose of them or maintain them. Some of them are very nice, but require a lot of work."

Clarke said she and other supporters of turning the tower over to the Roland Park community are in talks with the city to lease the tower under a "shared responsibility" arrangement, in which the community would be responsible for the maintenance of the tower and the city would continue to sholder legal liability.

Such talks have been ongoing in recent years, and in 2006 there were discussions about the city leasing the tower to the community for a nominal fee, although Pratt at the time said she wanted fair market value for surplus city properties.

Also at the time, league officials said they didn't want to buy the tower because of fears about assuming legal liability.

"We really don't want to buy it," Clarke said last week. "We want to lease it long-term — long enough to live out the bond."