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Neighborhood tries to reclaim former Goucher campus

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."

Gill said neither DNR nor the geological service "has a current or anticipated future need for the vacant lot," and that he referred Cross to Bill Vondrasek, chief of parks for the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, because funding for the acquisition of land in municipalities is better suited to "local" Program Open Space funds administered by the city.

"I think we're always open to increasing the amount of open space in the city," Vondrasek said. But he said the price for the NRDC land is "high" and any efforts to buy it are "super duper preliminary."

"Somehow, someone would have to be able to purchase that property and give it to the (parks and recreation) department," he said. "I'm not sure how we would get our hands on the property."

State Del. Maggie McIntosh, of Tuscany-Canterbury, who represents the 43rd legislative district and chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, used to live in Old Goucher and has been trying to help her old neighborhood acquire the parcel.

"I was trying to see if we could use some Open Space funding to see if we could purchase it," McIntosh said. "It's a little bit more complicated to get our hands on it."

McIntosh said it's important to try, especially with various efforts under way to expand the Station North Arts District toward north Baltimore.

But Baltimore Lab Head of School David Lightfoot has reservations about building parks and ripping up asphalt at the expense of parking.

"We like the idea long term, but parking is at a premium," he said.

Lightfoot said he is also concerned about crime in the area and that another park "creates another hangout."

Planting trees

Cross is making more immediate headway on the beautification front.

In October, the city and Baltimore Tree Trust plan to plant several hundred street trees in Old Goucher, using grant money from the Central Baltimore Partnership, the Chesapeake Bay Trust and the Baltimore-based Middendorf Foundation, said Dan Millender, executive director of Baltimore Tree Trust.

Cross said the Baltimore Tree Trust  has "adopted" Old Goucher. Johns Hopkins University has provided $25,000 through its $10 million Homewood Community Partners Initiative to help the neighborhoods around JHU's Homewood campus. The Baltimore Community Foundation has provided $3,500, he said.

Cross and Rozanski have planted magnolia and beech trees at Fensal Court, "like the trees of old," Rozanski said. "You cannot imagine how much pedestrian traffic we got after we started doing this stuff."

"It sends out the signal that somebody cares," Cross said.

Cross has aspirations for Old Goucher beyond restoring the old campus and is trying to free the community from the shadow of better known Charles Village and Remington. He chairs Baltimore Transit Choices, a group that is trying to get a streetcar line between the Inner Harbor and north Baltimore. He is watching closely the stalled development of a planned shopping center with a Walmart.

And he is promoting the neighborhood in general as ripe for development.

"We've got so much vacant land in Old Goucher," he said. "There's more than enough space to build."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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