Sarah Johnson and her husband, Carey Zumpano, share a fence line with Roland Park Place, and recently became nosy neighbors when they saw something unusual going on next door.
"We came home to find survey stakes in our back yard," Johnson said.
Now, the stakes are high as Roland Park Place, a continuing care retirement community in Hampden, faces community opposition to its plans to expand by building an eight-story building on its existing campus, with five stories of independent living apartments for seniors above a three-story garage with 175 parking spaces.
The retirement community, located in the 700 block of West 40th Street opposite the Rotunda shopping mall, also plans to expand its services by adding memory care, short-stay rehabilitation and long-term skilled nursing care as Phase I of the overall project. Also as part of Phase I, Roland Park Place plans to remove its cafe and add a multi-purpose space for lectures and other events, which would require adding 2,500 square feet to its footprint, officials said.
Phase 2 of the project would be the new garage and residence building. Roland Park Place already has an eight-story tower with 156 apartments, plus four cottages, 40 assisted living residences and 60 private rooms in its skilled nursing health care center. Roland Park Place seniors get "lifetime occupancy," as part of their continuing care contracts, officials said.
Neighbors of Roland Park Place, about 40 of whom attended a meeting with Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke on Monday night, say they fear that the project would bring more density, noise and traffic to the neighborhood. Chris McSherry, president of the Roland Park Civic League, said she worries about the impact of more traffic on several intersections in the area that the city classifies as "failing," including at Falls Road and 40th Street.
Roland Park Place officials didn't send a representative to the meeting at North Baltimore Mennonite Church because they wanted people in the community to meet "without the pressure of us being there," spokesman Bridget Forney Deise said Tuesday.
Roland Park Place issued a press release about the project earlier Monday at Clarke's request, and Clarke passed it around at the meeting.
According to the press release, changes would take place within the "immediate boundaries" of the campus. However, Clarke said at the meeting that she thinks the plan constitutes a major amendment to the existing Planned Unit Development zoning on the site, and a major PUD amendment would require public hearings and approval by the City Council.
Roland Park Place President Terry Snyder said she expects that the city would require a traffic impact study as part of the approval process.
Assuming the city approves the plans, construction of the new building wouldn't start until late 2017 or early 2018, and would take about 14 months to complete, according to the press release. Snyder said the Maryland Department of Aging also must approve plans as part of the state's regulatory process.
Neighbors said Roland Park Place didn't do a good enough job of alerting the community to its plans, although Roland Park Place officials invited area community leaders, including those from the Roland Park Civic League and Rolden Community Association, to a meeting June 23 to hear plans. Only three people, including a Rolden representative, attended that meeting, on the day of a hail storm, Deise said.
"We found out about it in a roundabout way," Johnson said.
Clarke and McSherry defended Roland Park Place at the meeting, saying they don't think the retirement community was trying to push through plans without the neighborhood's knowledge.
Snyder said that although she has met with Clarke three times about the project since May, the retirement community was low-key in announcing its plans because, "Our plans were in the very early stages of putting some meat on the bones. We didn't really have anything to share," prior to June 23.
Snyder and Deise said many of Roland Park Place's new residents in recent years have combined living units to create larger apartments, decreasing the number of people who live there at a time when the baby boomer population is growing.
Snyder and Deise said that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of seniors 75 and older is expected to swell by 70 percent to 34 million nationally in the next 15 years. As a result, they said, Roland Park Place needs to "reposition" itself to reflect seniors' changing needs.
"It's all about choices," Snyder said.
Roland Park Place promotes itself as the only accredited, nonprofit continuing care retirement community in the city. It offers independent living, unlike Keswick Multi-Care Center on the same block. However, Keswick offers specialty programs such as memory and long-term nursing care, which Roland Park Place now plans to add. Snyder said the goal is not to compete with Keswick, but to diversify the 31-year-old Roland Park Place, especially as more seniors move there from around the country to be closer to their adult children and extended families.
Snyder said the planned garage would address a parking shortage that has plagued Roland Park Place in recent years. The retirement complex currently uses the parking lot of an old church that it owns nearby. The historic church, 4001 Roland Ave., is not part of the project plans, according to the release.
At the meeting Monday, some Roland Park residents expressed mixed feelings about the project.
"I may want to live there someday," said Al Kopp. But Kopp and others predicted that the project would change the character of the area, especially on nearby University Parkway and Kittery Lane.
"University Parkway is an entrance to the neighborhood," said Laura Grier, a civic league board member.
"This is expanding the density within that space," protested Zumpano. "I didn't buy a historic house just to look out my back yard and see a three-story parking garage."