Roland Park Civic League wrestles with Cross Keys gatehouse plans [Hudson's Corner]

I was unable to attend the December meeting of the Roland Park Civic League and missed a presentation by New York-based Ashkenazy Acquisitions Corporation. These owners of the Cross Keys Shopping Center came to present plans for proposed renovations there.

I later heard concerns from residents of Falls Road Terrace and Edgevale Road. When I spoke to Chris McSherry, president of the Roland Park Civic League, she said that Roland Park had only begun its review process. No vote had been taken. While some board members saw no problems with the proposed plan, McSherry said others had concerns about increased lighting and signage, as well as traffic generated by the fitness center proposed for the tennis barn. She said Ashkenazy representatives were responsive to those concerns.

I hope that some Cross Keys Maintenance Corporation representatives will be able to attend the Feb. 6 Civic League meeting and share their views. Saying that the gatehouse is a historic icon, they oppose the plan to rebuild it and are applying for landmark designation to protect it from redevelopment.

The gatehouse is iconic and very much a structure of the 1960s. I would not call it beautiful, but the wood structure blends with the surrounding leafy community. It ties the masonry construction of Cross Keys to the clapboard and shingled houses across Falls Road.

While shopping center owners, and some others, might say the gatehouse blocks visibility of the stores, that might well have been the architects' intention. The shopping center at Cross Keys, a community built in 1965 by developer James Rouse, was the biggest commercial development the neighborhood had experienced since the turn-of-the-century construction of the Roland Park Shopping Center. In order for the Cross Keys commercial space to fit with a large, wooded residential community, it had to be subtle.

Most of the land on which it was built had previously been part of the Baltimore Country Club golf course, the first golf course in America designed within a residential community. Maintaining ample green space and trees for a picturesque, residential setting was important to Rouse's concept for Cross Keys and to Roland Park.

The original cedar shake roofing material chosen for the commercial centers, gatehouse and bus stop pavilion on Falls Road helped modern construction blend with historic surroundings.

The gatehouse obscured the view of the commercial area, and that was likely intentional. Rouse, like the Olmsted Brothers before him in Roland Park, used existing topography on this hilly property. A shopping center sited below Falls Road did not scream out to passersby. It nestled between communities of the varied Cross Keys houses and apartments. The brightly lighted window, which now features Talbot's clothing, did not originally exist.

When the center opened, the quality of shops and eateries made it an instant hit. Customers flocked from Roland Park, north Baltimore and Baltimore County. Never had Baltimore had a store, for example, like the Store Ltd., which is still there today. The former Roost restaurant and Cross Keys deli were magnets for those wanting tasty, reasonably priced food. They're gone, but the Village Square Cafe carries on that tradition.

While a new glass gatehouse might be transparent, that is a problem: too shiny, glassy, sleek and cold. It would further the commercial look that is creeping up Falls from Cold Spring Lane. Removing the tri-part river birch in front of the gatehouse would also be a mistake and further erode the line of trees along Falls Road that soften buildings and buffer traffic.

While a fitness center, with an indoor pool open to the public, would be a boon to the area, the flow of traffic around it, and its lighting and signage, must be understated and sensitive to nearby residents. Many signs and lights foster a commercial feeling.

Cross Keys is a residential community, not a shopping mall.

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