Fight over Cross Keys gatehouse

A standoff is brewing between condominium owners at the Village of Cross Keys and Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp., which wants to tear down the Cross Keys gatehouse that residents say is iconic. (Staff photo by Larry Perl / January 14, 2014)

Residents of the Village of Cross Keys are opposing plans by the owner of the Cross Keys Shopping Center to rebuild a gatehouse there.

New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corp. proposes a makeover of the center that would include razing the aging gatehouse, which serves as an entryway into the retail and residential complex off Falls Road. Ashkenazy, which leases office space in the gatehouse, presented its plans late last year to several community groups, including the Roland Park Civic League and the Cross Keys Maintenance Corp., the governing body for the Village of Cross Keys community of 3,000 residents.

The civic league in December signaled its overall support for the project, including a new gatehouse. But now, the maintenance corporation, whose 12 delegates include condominium owners, the Radisson Hotel, a merchants' association and representatives of Ashkenazy as the shopping center owner, is balking at the gatehouse plans, calling the gatehouse a historic icon.

The corporation also plans to apply for landmark designation for the gatehouse to protect it from redevelopment, President David Widows, a longtime Cross keys resident, said in a Dec. 17 letter to Tom Stosur, director of the Baltimore City Planning Department.

"The gatehouse property is owned by the Cross Keys Maintenance Corp.," Widows wrote. "Ashkenazy merely leases office space in the gatehouse. Simply put, the gatehouse is not Ashkenazy's to tear down."

Widows said in the letter that nine of the 12 delegates represent the community's nine separate condo associations. And in an interview, he said, "We own 54 percent" of the gatehouse building.

The letter states that on Dec. 11 and again on Dec. 16, the nine residential delegates, one from each of the condo groups, voted unanimously to oppose demolition of the gatehouse.

The letter defends the gatehouse as "iconic" and "the historic face of the Village of Cross Keys," which has stood at 5100 Falls Road for more than 50 years.

"It really personifies the character of the Village of Cross Keys," Widows told the Messenger.

Joe Press, Ashkenazy's senior vice president for asset management, defended the company's plans and said people at the corporation meeting at which the plans were presented were "overwhelmingly supportive and positive."

"I don't believe Mr. Widows is correct when he says the residents strongly oppose it," Press said.

But Press acknowledged that Ashkenazy will need the maintenance corporation's approval to proceed as planned.

"If we can't get our approvals, we won't do it," he said.

In their presentation to the Roland Park Civic League, Press and other Ashkenazy officials conceded that the Village of Cross Keys is in need of "investment and laid out plans for a mostly cosmetic makeover that would also freshen the courtyard of the shopping center, known as the Village Square, and would turn a so-called "tennis barn" on the grounds into a fitness center.

"It needs a face-lift," Press told civic league members.

Ashkenazy, which also owns malls and shopping centers nationwide, including Harborplace in downtown Baltimore, purchased the Village of Cross Keys Shopping Center in 2012. Now, Ashkenazy is seeking to make physical improvements to the Rouse Co.-built shopping center, which is known for its throwback feel of the 1950s-70s, as well as for its mix of independent boutique stores and national chain retailers, including Williams-Sonoma, J. Jill and Talbots.

Plans for Cross Keys include downsizing and modernizing the gatehouse with its terra cotta roof to give the stores more visibility, updating signage and storefront exteriors surrounding the courtyard using a lot of natural wood, and building a 30,000-square-foot fitness center, probably with an indoor public pool, where the tennis facility is now. The tennis courts would remain. Ashkenazy doesn't have a tenant yet in mind, officials said.

The improvements would have to be approved by the city because Cross Keys is a planned unit development and Ashkenazy would be making major amendments to the PUD. Officials also said the improvements are subject to approval by the civic league because Cross Keys operates under community covenants that would have to be amended, too.

But no redevelopment is planned.

"We're not changing a single square foot," Press told the civic league.

Widows doesn't think Ashkenazy should change the gatehouse, either, except for maintenance, including staining the building and fixing the roof

"For eight months, I've been trying to get them to fix the building," he said. "It's not falling apart. I would say for $5,000, you could make the building look like new. Don't make changes for changes' sake."