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State senator wades into contentious battle over Northwood Plaza redevelopment

The Northwood Plaza shopping center
The Northwood Plaza shopping center (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

A long-awaited, $50 million redevelopment of the dilapidated Northwood Plaza shopping center in Northeast Baltimore could be scaled back significantly after opposition emerged to planned Morgan State University student housing on the site.

While some nearby residents oppose the proposed scale of the student housing, others worry the developer could walk away from the project entirely. University officials, meanwhile, are scrambling to find alternate housing for hundreds of students.

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State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who represents the area, vowed the student housing would not be built and filed a bill late last week to block Morgan State's Board of Regents from signing any agreement with the private developer for student housing.

Stacy Ridgeway, the president of the Hillen Road Improvement Association, said neighbors were taken aback when they learned a couple of months ago that student housing would be part of the project. They felt the housing would be too dense and cause issues with parking and traffic.

"We're looking to have a shopping center that the community can utilize, not an extension of Morgan State University," Ridgeway said. "It's a shopping center that everybody wants to see redeveloped, but not at the expense of the community."

But nearby neighborhood groups are not in agreement.

"I think to just kill something that could be so transformative without listening to the broader voices of the neighborhoods is just a travesty," said Richard Skolasky, president of the Original Northwood Association, which favors the student housing. "For a state senator to come and get involved in a local city development that's not asking for state money, it befuddled us."

The shopping center, which features a Rainbow clothing store, a nail salon, a MetroPCS retailer, several empty storefronts and a Save-A-Lot grocery store on the far side, sits on the southwestern edge of Morgan State University's campus. In 2008, former city councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. was shot and killed at the shopping center during a robbery.

The strip-style center is adjacent to Morgan's $72 million business school building, which opened last fall, and an $80 million facility under construction that will house Morgan's social and behavioral science programs. University officials and community leaders hope the new development will serve as a bridge between Morgan and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The developer's plans call for 100,000 square feet of retail, including a grocery store and a bookstore, plus housing with 350 beds for upper class and graduate students at Morgan. Since the development is privately owned, the university would need to sign an agreement with the owners for the student housing to go forward.

Two of the three neighborhood associations that abut the property, the Original Northwood Association and the New Northwood Community Association, support the housing.

Conway's bill has no co-sponsors and no pair in the House of Delegates. The state senator said she was taking the side of the Hillen Road Improvement Association, which opposes the student housing, which would stand four stories high on what is now a parking lot.

Conway said the neighborhood is concerned that the student building was too high and close to the residents who would live across from it on Argonne Drive.

She vowed the student housing would not be built, adding, "not if I have anything to do with it."

She stressed that she was in favor of the redevelopment in general, just not the student housing component. Her bill includes a clause that would allow an agreement to go forward if the neighborhood association changes its mind.

"I'm always standing with my constituents and the homeowners who are most impacted by it," Conway said.

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Developer Mark Renbaum, a principal at MLR Partners, said that if the student housing was removed from the project, "it would certainty change the scale of it."

"It's possible people many years from now would look back on it and think what could have been," he said.

Morgan State President David Wilson said the university would not sign off on the housing while facing community opposition.

"We are certainly not going to do anything in strong opposition to the voices of our community," Wilson said. "I am hopeful that there can be some kind of compromise."

Wilson said the university hoped to move about 350 students who live in the nearby Marble Hall apartments into the new development. Just weeks ago, the Marble Hall apartments went up for sale, Wilson said, putting pressure on the university to quickly find new housing for those students.

Without the additional revenue and foot traffic the student housing would bring, some residents worried that they would never see the transformative redevelopment they've long hoped for.

Skolasky, of the Original Northwood Association, said he was "flabbergasted" when he learned Conway had introduced the bill. His group is circulating a petition to keep student housing on the site. As of Friday, it had more than 600 signatures.

"If there is no student housing there would be no major redo of that location," said Kenneth J. Desmarais, president of the New Northwood Community Association. "It'll be just new signage and slap some paint on it and end up with the same type of stores."

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