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Neighbors balk at proposed 180-foot cell tower in Baltimore's Druid Hill Park

Baltimore officials delayed a scheduled hearing this week on a massive cellphone tower proposed for Druid Hill Park after neighbors balked at the idea.

The Baltimore City Department of Real Estate has proposed a 180-foot tower that would house communications equipment for T-Mobile, city emergency services and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, where the tower would be located.

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City officials say the tower would save the city millions in taxpayer dollars, but neighbors of the historic park worry that such a tower would disrupt the peaceful environment, compromise the site and tarnish views of the Mansion House, other historic buildings and the park itself. They complain they were not consulted in the initial planning for the tower.

“We shouldn’t just intervene into a vulnerable landscape simply because the city owns it and it’s an easy solution,” said Graham Coreil-Allen, acting vice president of the New Auchentoroly Terrace Association.

A Tuesday hearing on the proposal before the city’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation has been postponed while city government and community stakeholders meet to discuss the project.

T-Mobile initially approached the Maryland Zoo to discuss building the tower, Steward Beckham, a spokesman for the city’s real estate department, said in an email.

The company is eyeing one of the highest points on the zoo’s campus for the tower — an unused site at 1 Safari Place where the former Small Mammal House sits, zoo spokeswoman Jane Ballentine said.

The tower is expected to cost $850,000 to build, and construction would run from March 2020 to June 2020, according to a proposal submitted to CHAP. The city estimates the tower would save it $3.5 million by 2033 in money the city would otherwise spend renting space on other towers.

Four design options, each 180 feet tall, were proposed for the structure, including a traditional tower and three “stealth tower” options: one that resembles a fake tree, another designed as a clock tower or a third option equipped with tree elements at the base and mirrors at the top to blend in with the surrounding sky.

“The stealthy parts of the stealth tower don’t seem too stealthy,” said Daniel Hindman, a 32-year-old Auchentoroly Terrace resident.

The cell tower would be less than a mile south of the antennae of Baltimore’s TV Hill but would dwarf the forest of Druid Hill Park, which sprawls across 745 acres just west of the Jones Falls Valley.

“We’d like to make sure it’s in keeping with something that isn’t too much of an eyesore,” Ballentine said. “TV Hill is right behind the zoo. … I think after a while you just don’t see that anymore.”

But preservationists and neighbors worry the tall structure does not align with the park’s purposeful design as an escape from urban living. Along with Central Park in New York and Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Druid Hill Park became a model for other urban parks when it opened to the public in the 1860s as city planners looked to create escapes from crowded urban centers, said Johns Hopkins, executive director of Baltimore Heritage.

“That’s the reason that it’s on the National Register of Historic Places,” Hopkins said. “Putting a cell tower right in the most prominent spot right next to the most historic buildings is just about as problematic as you can get.”

The tower would be situated near two historic buildings. The Mansion House, also known as the Rogers Mansion, dates to 1801 and served as a home for the Rogers family before the private estate was sold and converted to public land. The nearby Maryland Building was the state’s contribution to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876, 100 years after the American Revolution. The structure was assembled in pieces in Baltimore, shipped by rail to Philadelphia, constructed for the exhibition, broken down and returned to Druid Hill Park, where it was reassembled after the exhibition.

“It is such a visual landmark from so many places. I mean, that great, front sweeping lawn basically down to the reservoir, and on top of the hill there’s the Rogers Mansion and then next to it the Maryland Building,” Hopkins said. “For generations and generations they both have played both a visual and a use role.”

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A 180-foot tower is not compatible with historic buildings that only rise 30 or 40 feet, he said.

Neighbors of Druid Hill Park agree.

“When you’re standing in the lawn and you look up, the Mansion House looks even grander,” Coreil-Allen said. “Now imagine that experience with this beautiful house surrounded by a forest on either side. All of a sudden there’s a 180-foot tower poking out at the right.”

CHAP notified his neighborhood association about two weeks before the proposal was slated to be presented at the commission’s meeting Tuesday, Coreil-Allen said.

“This was very surprising to see something of this magnitude being just plowed ahead without so much as even a meeting beforehand to consider what are the communities interested in and how would this benefit communities on the west side of the park in particular,” said Coreil-Allen, a public artist and Baltimore Heritage board member.

In a letter drafted to CHAP, the Greater Mondawmin Coordinating Council said it opposes the tower based on its location in the park. But if construction moves forward, the council suggested creating a formal request for proposals and review process by the Public Art Commission for the tower’s design; relocating the tower to a less obvious place in the park; and having the city enter a memorandum of understanding with the Parks & People Foundation to establish a fund for Druid Hill Park based on savings and revenue from the tower.

“Putting it in the park in the first place would be unfortunate given that this is a historic park, it was intended to be a natural space,” said Hindman, who helped draft the council’s letter. “You’re just adding to the imposition on that space of those things it was meant to be separated from. It’s meant to be a space of retreat in nature.”

If the tower is built, the zoo plans to relocate radio repeaters to improve communication between staff. Eventually, the tower could also provide Wi-Fi connectivity for zoo visitors, Ballentine said.

Representatives from T-Mobile did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

CHAP’s next hearing is scheduled for April 9. The agenda for that meeting has not been released.

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While they balked at first learning of the proposed tower in the park, the neighbors suggested they are open to working with the city.

Coreil-Allen suggested that just moving the tower a little to the east would “diminish its intrusion into the view of the historic Mansion House.”

“I’m not saying nothing can happen,” he said. “We’re against it as proposed because we haven’t been invited to be part of this conversation.”

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