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Proposed drug counseling center in Mount Washington draws community's ire

Sam Bierman, executive director of Polaris Recovery Center.
Sam Bierman, executive director of Polaris Recovery Center. (File photo)

Plans to open a counseling center for drug addicts is causing consternation in the Mount Washington community, where opponents say it poses a safety risk to motorists at a bad intersection and to children who walk to several schools in the immediate area.

The Maryland Addiction Recovery Center, whose parent company is Towson-based Polaris Recovery Center, is seeking approval from the Baltimore City zoning board to open a center at 5550 Newbury St., at the busy intersection of Newbury Street, Kelly Avenue and South Road.

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A community meeting called by opponent Bill Rudow, an attorney whose office is acrosas the street from the proposed clinic, was held Jan. 8, and another meeting, this one called by Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle"Rikk" Spector, is set for Jan. 21 starting at 7 p.m.., in the C-19 conference room at the Johns Hopkins University campus in Mount Washington.

A hearing before the city's Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals board is set for Jan. 27 at 3 p.m.

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Polaris' executive director, Sam Bierman said the Mount Washington office would not dispense methadone, and would be a counseling center, open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., that would advocate abstinence from drugs. The center would focus on individual, group and family therapy, he said.

Bierman also said he has reached out to the community, including scheduling a meeting Saturday with the zoning committee chairman of the Mount Washington Improvement Association.

"We want to be good neighbors," Bierman said. "We do not want to be a nuisance."

Rudow said he thinks the plan is "a non-starter" legally, because it has only 14 parking spaces and would need more than double that number to comply with city zoning regulations for health care offices.

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Rudow also said he worries that the proposed clinic would compound traffic and pedestrian safety problems, especially for schoolchildren crossing what he called a dangerous and "wacky" intersection, where three major roads come together near the Mount Washington Village commercial district and a light rail stop. The Mount Washington School, a public school, has two separate buildings, one on Sulgrave Avenue and the other in the old Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church school, both of which are within walking distance, he said. Even closer is the Arts & Ideas Sudbury School, located in the old St. John's Episcopal Church, he said.

"You constantly have a lot of kids walking in that area," he said. "My concern is for the safety of the kids."

Rudow also said the city is building a bicycle path that would run behind the office building where the counseling center could be located. And he said parking is already hard to come by in the business district.

Bierman said he anticipates having 20 to 25 clients and hiring six to eight staff members. The company is also buying a van that would shuttle clients to and from their homes or jobs.

But Rudow said the staffing and van wouldn't change his mind.

"From my perspective, it's irrelevant," Rudow said.

Some of the clients would come from Jewish Community Services, said Mike Gimbel, a Polaris consultant.

Gimbel, former longtime director of substance abuse programs for Baltimore County and later for the Sheppard Pratt Health System, said he has long been opposed to methadone treatment and would never work for a company that advocated it.

But Gimbel said, "I endorse this program."

Also endorsing it is Barbara Gradet, executive director of Jewish Community Services. Gradet said Jewish Community Services has formed a "continuum of care" consortium that includes  Maryland Addiction Recovery Center and she hopes to refer clients to the counseling center.

Gradet said she could not quantify that statistically, but, "It's very clear to us that there's a need."

Rudow, who has not met with center officials, said he is not opposed in concept to a drug treatment center in Mount Washington, but, "This is not the location for it. That building doesn't work."

He added, "I'm always happy to compromise if there's a compromise (to be had). But there's no way possible for Polaris to change that intersection," unless the provider built a pedestrian bridge over the intersection

He said there has been talk in the community of a negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the Maryland Addictions Recovery Center.

The Mount Washington Village Association, a merchants' group, has not met with center officials or taken a formal position, which would be premature "until we know more about it," said the group's attorney, Herbert Burgunder III.

But Burgunder said, "The merchants are concerned about the intensity of the use" of the 6,000-square-foot building, as well as "the difficult intersection."

Koula Savvakis, president of the merchants' association, could not be reached for cxomment.

Spector said she would support the counseling center if the community does, but echoed Rudow in saying the plan would be "a non-starter" without more parking.

"I would never agree to rezone that property," she said.

Spector also said she would support the community in asking for conditions regarding issues such as hours of operation

But she added, "I haven't taken a  position because it's too soon."

At the meeting Jan. 8, Rudow reiterated that he was no opposed to a clinic conceptually, but several of the 18 people who attended the meeting said they would be opposed. Mount Washington Village businesswomen Denise Klicos, of DK Salon, and Mary Anne Barker, of La Chic Boutique, said they thought the clinic would bring unwanted loitering and other problems to the business district and residential neighborhoods.

"I don't want additional people coming here and lying on benc hes," said Barker, a Mount Washington resident. "I don't want it  in my neighborhood."

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