Baltimore City Council passes deal on controversial Northern Parkway apartments

The Baltimore City Council agreed Monday to set terms for the construction of a 148-unit apartment building off Northern Parkway, a project bitterly opposed by some who live in the area.

The complex, dubbed the Overlook at Roland Park, has pitted developer Jonathan Ehrenfeld and his Blue Ocean Realty firm against residents of the affluent neighborhoods nearby.

Council members voted 14-0 to approve the legislation, which allows the developer to build under previous and more advantageous zoning rules. Neighbors say their next step will be to call on Mayor Catherine Pugh to veto it.

A spokesman for Pugh said the mayor will review the legislation before deciding what to do.

Councilman Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, the measure's sponsor, said the deal should mitigate some neighborhood concerns. Without it, he said, the developer could have built an even larger complex.

"It was never a question of should the project happen or not," Schleifer said before the vote. "The developer, the owner, has the right to build it, so the question just became how do you minimize impact on a community while making sure the stakeholders get the best outcome from that project."

The opponents' complaints are myriad: The potential effect on traffic at an already busy intersection, the building's height — six stories — and the speed with which the council acted to approve terms of the development agreement.

"It's the wrong project in the wrong place for the wrong people," Donna Ann Ward said. She said the proposed luxury apartments are the wrong fit for a city in need of housing for lower-income people.

Al Barry, a representative of Ehrenfeld, said the developer has made substantial changes to the project.

"He took a whole story off," Barry said. "He's preserving at least six, almost eight, acres of woods from any future development."

The site for the apartments is next to the Belvedere Towers, which stand near the Jones Falls Expressway at the edge of the North Roland Park neighborhood. The immediate area is sparsely populated, with just a few homes scattered along St. George's Road.

The zoning for the area was tweaked under rules that went into force this month. The new rules would have allowed the same maximum number of units as the old ones — 197 — but would have limited the building's height, city zoning administrator Geoffrey Veale wrote in a letter to Schleifer last week. Opponents of the project question whether all those units could realistically be built in accordance with the new rules.

But because the deal passed Monday by the council was introduced before the rule change, the project is grandfathered into the old zoning.

Hap Cooper, the president of the Roland Park Civic League, said Pugh is now the opponents' "first and last line of defense."

Opponents of the project have also raised questions about Ehrenfeld's campaign contributions and fundraising efforts for Schleifer, who was elected in November to succeed retired Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. She had served continuously since first being elected in 1977.

Ehrenfeld personally contributed $1,500 to Schleifer's campaign in the last election cycle, campaign finance records show, and he co-hosted a fundraiser for the first-time councilman, according to a flier on Schleifer's Facebook page.

Schleifer brushed off any concern that he might have been influenced by the money.

"Campaign contributions don't drive any decision I ever make," he said. "I have never been and I never will be a quid pro quo person."

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