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A revival of ideas for redeveloping Spring Grove land

The campus surrounding Spring Grove Hospital Center, pictured in 2011, is the focus of plans for redevelopment, but will remain under the control of the Maryland Department of Health for now.
The campus surrounding Spring Grove Hospital Center, pictured in 2011, is the focus of plans for redevelopment, but will remain under the control of the Maryland Department of Health for now. (BSMG file)

After years of talk about the 189-acre wooded grounds of the Spring Grove Hospital Center being declared surplus and sold by the state, many plans have been crafted for the land.

Jim Himel, a former Baltimore city planner, wants to lease 50 acres for a single, symbolic dollar to create an arboretum and community park, complete with ornamental gardens, hiking paths and an amphitheater.

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Steve Whalen, a Catonsville developer, has long eyed a 21-acre section of the property that fronts the Beltway — the site would give his company's planned mixed-use development, on land adjacent to Spring Grove, room to grow.

Tom Quirk, a Baltimore County councilman who represents the area, would like to see the land include public open spaces, a high-end hotel, a 55-plus residential community and an expanded research park for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz floated the campus as a possible site for Amazon's new headquarters last month.

But the Maryland Department of Health, which owns the psychiatric hospital and its campus, has no plans to declare the land surplus any time soon.

"The Department of Health is currently in the process of developing a department-wide facilities master plan that will assess all properties, including Spring Grove, to determine the best use of those properties," said Brittany Fowler, a department spokeswoman.

Fowler said the master plan, which is to be completed next year, is the first step in a process that will determine what will happen to the property, home to one of the nation's oldest psychiatric hospitals.

Redevelopment around Spring Grove has been studied for years. The most recent ideas have been under consideration since 2009, though community members like Himel began making plans for the land years earlier and he recently began reviving discussions about an arboretum.

In a 2012 report mandated by the state legislature, what was then called the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that the site could be parceled into commercial, office, park and university space.

The state agency has held any plans close to the chest.

Delegate Eric Ebersole, a Democrat who represents Catonsville in the legislature, said that he and other delegates met with the previous Department of Health secretary, Van Mitchell, about two years ago. Mitchell said that the department had "no plans to get rid of this property," Ebersole recalled.

Since then, Ebersole said, "Answers have been pretty flat."

Whalen said his company started planning to build on Spring Grove's campus in 2004, hoping to break ground in 2008. When those plans fell through, his company moved to develop on the land it already owns, next to Spring Grove on Kenwood Avenue.

Today, the company is moving ahead with plans to develop the Kenwood Avenue site into a massive mixed-use space — with or without the Spring Grove land. The 1.2 million square foot project, which is awaiting county approval, includes plans for restaurants, offices, a concert venue and a possible bowling alley.

If the plans are approved, Whalen said his company will seek a joint venture partner.

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"We've been waiting for a long time, so we just decided, we can't wait forever," Whalen said. "We can do a viable project with what we already own."

If state-owned land and buildings were to be declared surplus tomorrow, however, "we would attempt to jump on it," Whalen said.

Himel said the Spring Grove Arboretum, incorporated as a nonprofit, is asking the state for a $1 lease for about 50 acres over 50 years.

The plans are modeled after the Adkins Arboretum on the Eastern Shore, which operates under a 50-year lease with the Department of Natural Resources.

Himel said that state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Catonsville, will help the group negotiate a lease with the state. Kasemeyer could not be reached for comment.

The arboretum group plans to use what is already on the land, including trees and existing features like ball fields. It is possible, Himel said, that the only change a lease would bring is a "Spring Grove Arboretum" sign.

Much of the land the arboretum hopes to lease, Himel said, consists of flood plains and stream buffer zones, where development is not allowed.

Himel said that while they wait, the group is working on small projects like stream cleanups with the permission of the hospital's administration. The group has been planting trees on the campus as part of Himel's concurrent Catonsville Tree Canopy Project, which plants and cares for trees in Catonsville.

One project the arboretum wants to start, Himel said, is a "Bark Park." The group wants to build it on the site of a building that stands today, he said. In the meantime he hopes to build a temporary dog park on some of Whalen's land, in the five years before the developer's construction project begins.

Whalen said that putting a dog park on his land off of South Paradise Avenue is "certainly a possibility," but that details would have to be worked out.

Overall, however, Whalen said the arboretum is aligned with his goals for the area.

"We are very much supportive of the arboretum project," Whalen said, saying that the arboretum would extend to the parts of his land that are environmentally sensitive and cannot be built on, such as flood plains near the stream.

The arboretum, Himel said, would also work in tandem with Spring Grove's mental health services.

"If you Google 'trees,' " Himel said, "there is a psych side of it that says, of course, if you're in a 'treed' environment your stress level goes way down."

Still, the state is making no promises. Asked about the potential for the land to be leased to the arboretum group, Fowler said: "The master plan is the first step in the process" — until its release next year, she said, they have no new information.

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