Baltimore County backs out of deal to move workers to Towson Presbyterian Home

Baltimore County won't move government workers to Presbyterian Home in Towson.

Baltimore County has backed away from a controversial proposal to place government offices at a historic mansion in Towson, prompting the developer to return its focus to a residential plan that could result in the building's demolition.

Arthur Adler, a principal with Caves Valley Partners, which has a contract to buy the Presbyterian Home of Maryland's building, said his company is now considering all options for the building — including tearing it down to build homes.

"Everything's on the table at this moment," Adler said Wednesday. "We literally just hired an architect."

The building closed as a nursing facility earlier this year, and the company put it up for sale.

Caves Valley emerged as the winning bidder last week, with a proposal to convert the building into offices that would be leased to the Baltimore County government.

Residents of the surrounding Southland Hills community swiftly opposed that plan, fearing increased traffic and parking problems from the county employees. They worried the Presbyterian Home building's sloping lawn — long used by neighborhood residents as community green space — might be paved over for parking.

The blowback was so great the county withdrew from the arrangement, said Don Mohler, chief of staff and spokesman for County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.

"It became clear there was not a community consensus and some in the community did not want the county to put offices there. So at that point, we informed the developer" that the county was no longer interested, Mohler said.

"We don't have any desire to get involved in some kind of a community dispute," he said.

Officials with the Presbyterian Home declined to comment.

Residents said they were pleased the proposal for office space appears dead for the Presbyterian Home building, which sits on about 4 acres on Georgia Court.

"We're pleased that the county officials have taken on board our concerns and have decided not to move forward with the proposal to repurpose the Presbyterian Home property for office space," said Therese McAllister, a board member of the Southland Hills Improvement Association.

McAllister said neighbors remain focused on making sure the "unique and historically" significant building isn't torn down, and that any development on the property is sensitive to the neighborhood's residential feel.

Yet neighbors and county preservation advocates remain worried about the mansion's future and want it placed on the county's Landmarks List — a move that would protect it from demolition and limit exterior renovations to the building.

"It's a special property. It's not just any old building," said Jeremy Talman, who's hung a historic picture of the Presbyterian Home in his dining room across the street. "I think we'd all like to see a use that doesn't disturb the residential character of the neighborhood."

The home sits in the heart of Southland Hills surrounded by single-family homes. Neighborhood children begin Halloween parades at the Presbyterian Home building and hunt for Easter eggs on its lawn.

The core of the building is the Bosley Mansion, constructed in the mid-1800s by one of Towson's early and influential families. Dr. Grafton Bosley, who built the home, once owned a large portion of land and donated part of it to become the site of the original jail and courthouse for Towson, the seat of the newly created Baltimore County. Wings were later added to both sides of the Bosley Mansion.

The facility has been used as a nursing home by the Presbyterian Home since 1929. The last resident is scheduled to move out Thursday.

The county Landmarks Preservation Commission will consider the request for landmark status on Sept. 8. If the panel recommends in favor, the issue goes to the County Council for approval.

Residents of the Southland Hills community are planning a rally Sunday to draw attention to their concerns about the building and generate support for landmark designation.

"We're a neighborhood and we want to remain a neighborhood," said Kate Knott, another Southland Hills resident.

Adler said Caves Valley will oppose landmark status for the building. Now that offices are off the table, he said the company is evaluating whether the existing building can be incorporated in a residential project — or must be torn down to build new.

The company has the property, which is zoned for up to 5.5 homes per acre, under contract. Presbyterian Home officials have said the contract is subject to a 60-day study period, which runs through mid-October.

County Councilman David Marks favors preserving the Presbyterian Home building, and said there's an opportunity for Caves Valley to save the building and satisfy the neighbors.

"If Caves Valley Partners comes up with a good plan that retains the historic integrity of the building, they will be treated like heroes," said Marks, a Republican who represents Towson. "No one wants to see the structure torn down."

Marks said it's disconcerting that Caves Valley might consider demolishing it.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure the structure is protected and developed in a way that is sensitive to the Southland Hills community," Marks said.

Marks and state Sen. Jim Brochin initially suggested government offices at the site. State officials dismissed the idea of using the property for state offices.

Adler said Caves Valley wanted to do a residential project at first, but the idea of converting the Presbyterian Home building into offices came from the county.

"They threw this up and we explored it," Adler said.

County officials never said how many employees might move there, but Mohler said it would have been "a fairly significant amount."

The county will look elsewhere in Towson for office space, said Mohler, who said the county needs a building with about 60,000 to 100,000 square feet for IT operations. The Presbyterian Home building is 72,000 square feet.

Details of Caves Valley's contract with the Presbyterian Home have not been made public. The real estate broker, MacKenzie Commercial, did not list a price in its marketing materials. The property is valued for tax purposes at nearly $4.1 million.

Officials with the Presbyterian Home declined to reveal how many companies bid on the property, but representatives from three bidders confirmed to The Baltimore Sun that they had made proposals.

Developer Martin Azola — who turned Towson's old jail into offices, among other historic renovations — said he had proposed converting the home into condominiums for senior citizens. Johns Hopkins surgeon Dr. Patrick Byrne said he and his business partners proposed opening a home to care for people with memory issues such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. And Harbor Retirement Associates, a Florida-based nursing home company, also bid on the property, said Richard Baummer, the company's director of land acquisitions.

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