Kely Cross shows old Goucher College campus

Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association, discusses ideas his organization has for an empty parcel at St. Paul Street and East 23rd Street. (Photo by Steve Ruark / June 23, 2014)

Young women smile in old photos of the Women's College of Baltimore from the late 1800s and early 1900s, holding one another's waists as they dance playfully on the St. Paul Street campus, form human arches for the others to duck under, or sit cross-legged on the grass, looking at a jar, perhaps for a turn-of-the-century science project.

As students, they are timeless, but the park-like campus was not. The college, now coed and called Goucher, moved to Towson in the early 1950s and has no known remaining business or real estate interests in the old campus in south Charles Village, spokeswoman Kristen Keener Pinheiro said.

The old Goucher Hall in the 2200 block of St. Paul is now the Lab School of Baltimore, next door to Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, where the college's founder was a pastor.

And the neighborhood, though named Old Goucher, has lost its collegiate identity and bucolic setting. The land was long ago divided and sold to various entities. The old school buildings, like Hooper House, once the college president's residence, have been put to other uses or sit vacant, or are no longer in existence, leaving empty lots.

That saddens Kelly Cross as a resident and president of the Old Goucher Community Association. He says the community lost more than a college; it lost greenery that Baltimore City never bothered to replicate elsewhere in the neighborhood, figuring the college would fill that need as a neighborhood hub.

But Cross and the association also see an opportunity to reclaim the "historic green spaces" between the Lab School and the Safeway supermarket on 24th Street, by tearing up asphalt, planting trees, looking for new tenants for some of the buildings, and raising money to acquire several lots to protect them from development and convert them to public park land — all while keeping the area's historic buildings intact.

"We want to restore the Goucher College campus and turn it into a public open space as the crown jewel of the neighborhood," said Cross, 35, a staffing consultant to law firms. "This is the heart of the neighborhood."

Cross and his husband, Mateusz Rozanski, are promoting an urban renewal and streetscaping effort to restore two major green spaces in the Old Goucher neighborhood. One is what used to be known as Bennett Lawn and Goucher Lawn, the old main campus green space, It encompasses three parcels — the Lab School at 2220 St. Paul; the Maryland Geological Survey building at 2300 St. Paul, which is owned by the Maryland Geological Service; and the large fenced lot at 2330 St. Paul, which is owned by a New York-based developer, National Realty & Development Corp.

"We need to purchase that (NRDC) parcel," Cross said.

They are also trying to restore the old Fensal Court, 101 W. 24th St., once a dormitory area. It now serves as a parking lot for the Mayor's Office of Employment Development.  The community association has already reclaimed about one eighth of the parking lot as community park space, with the help of the Baltimore Community Foundation and Tree Baltimore, Cross said.

He said Old Goucher suffers from too much parking and not enough parks

"Forty percent of our land area in Old Goucher is paved parking," he said. "It's just not allocated very well."

Easier said than done

The community may have its work cut out.

Brian Sekel, NRDC's executive vice president for real estate, said the asking price for the fenced lot is "in the neighborhood" of $1.5 million, but, "Our preference is not to sell it. Our preference is to develop it. Historically, we're not sellers. We're developers. We're holders."

There used to be a building there, originally built for IBM, Sekel said. The old Baltimore City heat hotline was based there, too. The building wasn't that valuable and was eventually torn down. But the land is valuable, Sekel said.

"I get calls all the time," he said.

Cross called $1.5 million "an insane price," but said he would like the city or state to buy the half-acre property and preserve it as open space.

"It's valuable to us," he said. "It's our neighborhood."

Joseph Gill, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement that the 30,000-square-foot parcel does not meet the state's criteria for Program Open Space funding because those funds are generally used to buy "valuable natural lands within targeted ecological areas."