Neighbors of a proposed affordable housing development in East Towson voiced concerns at a meeting Oct. 29 over a range of issues, including increased traffic, what they perceive as the project’s aesthetic shortcomings and an anticipated loss of trees.
As proposed, the Red Maple Place project would create 56 affordable apartment units — 22 one-bedroom units, 17 two-bedroom units and 17 three-bedroom units — on a 2.5-acre plot of land between East Pennsylvania Avenue and East Joppa Road, off Fairmount Avenue. A rendering of the project shows the building with one terrace level and three stories above that.
The entrance and exit to the complex, as proposed, are both on Joppa Road. The project calls for 87 parking spaces, with most in an underground garage.
The project is bordered by East Towson, a historically black neighborhood, and Harris Hills, a complex of condominiums.
Michele Yendall, who sits on the Harris Hills board of directors, said during the community input meeting on Red Maple Place that traffic in the area, especially along Joppa Road, “is already horrendous.”
Adding more than 50 units that could be accessed only from Joppa Road would exacerbate traffic problems, she said.
A rendering of the building, which showed dark brown and black colors on its siding, was also a concern for Yendall. Residents of Harris Hills currently have a view of a small wooded area that would be lost if the proposal moves forward.
“Now we get a brown siding, and you’re going to be 30 feet from their deck, which I can hardly imagine will be [a welcome view] over a glass of wine,” she said.
Nancy Goldring, a resident of East Towson, called Red Maple Place “a 50-unit obstruction” in the middle of the neighborhood.
“If this apartment were half apartment, half condo, you’d have my attention,” she said.
But because the development is for low-income renters, Goldring said, it’s an “insincere” project.
It will encourage people to move in and rent, but ultimately they won’t be able to afford to purchase a home in Towson, so they’d have to leave the area, she said.
Goldring also disapproved of the design of the building. "I feel that if it was a genuine effort to be a hand up to lower-income families, it would look like it. It would look like a residence; it wouldn’t look like a commercial space,” she said.
The project would be constructed and run by Homes for America, an Annapolis-based nonprofit that develops and preserves affordable rental properties.
Kathy Ebner, president and CEO of the organization, said Homes for America is “not in this to make a quick buck.”
“We are in this for the long haul, because we care,” Ebner said during the community input meeting.
The Green Towson Alliance, a local environmental advocacy group, also has voiced opposition to Red Maple Place, as proposed.
Beth Miller, a longtime member of the organization and co-chair of its Downtown Towson Development work group, said she and others with Green Towson Alliance are upset with how close the proposed project would be to a forested area and a sensitive wetland.
In May, the project received a variance from the county Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability to reduce its buffer requirements on the land.
“Why do we even have environmental laws if all you have to do is apply for a variance and it’s granted?” Miller asked. “Why isn’t that a priority to preserve these forest buffers?”
Miller, an architect by trade, said she thinks the building could be redesigned and “built in a way that respects the forest buffer laws and preserves more wooded area, which obviously is going to help with absorbing stormwater, preserving the wildlife there.”
Residents in the area have said water already pools on Pennsylvania Avenue when there is heavy rain; speakers at the community input meeting said they were worried the problem would get worse if Red Maple Place is built.
Chris Mudd, an attorney with Venable who is working with developers on the Red Maple Place project, said during the community input meeting, which about 50 people attended, that financing for the project would not work if it were redesigned to be taller with a smaller footprint, which some activists have floated as a way to lessen the environmental impact.
Under county development rules, Homes for America has one year from the date of the community meeting to submit its development plan.
“Our dialogue will continue after this meeting tonight,” Mudd said Oct. 29.
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has been pushing a bill in the county that would prohibit landlords from rejecting an applicant just on the grounds that the applicant wants to use a federal Housing Choice voucher, often called Section 8. Olszewski, who introduced the legislation in early October, said previously that the county must ensure “equitable and affordable housing.”
“We are considering community concerns regarding the project and are committed to ensuring that Red Maple Place will be an asset to the community and the residents of our county as a high-quality, affordable housing option,” Olszewski said in a statement.
A County Council vote on the bill is scheduled for Nov. 4. Just two council members have publicly affirmed they will vote for it: Julian Jones of Woodstock and Izzy Patoka of Pikesville, both Democrats. Democratic Council members Tom Quirk of Oella and Cathy Bevins of Middle River have not publicly stated whether they will vote for the measure.
The council’s three Republicans, including David Marks, who represents Towson, have said they oppose the bill.
Marks said he shares the community’s concerns about Red Maple Place’s impact on transportation and traffic in East Towson, and that it would mean a reduction in the size of the local tree canopy.
Marks said he’d like the county to reconsider the forest buffer variance the project received. Marks also said he thought the project would “be far more acceptable for the community” if the building were taller or if it were redesigned to have fewer units.
“But, the county executive is supportive of this project and affordable housing in general,” Marks said. “It would be helpful to have some support from him in modifying it.”
Baltimore County is required to "take all necessary steps” to encourage developers to build 1,000 affordable housing units across the county over a period of 12 years, or 83 units per year, under a 2016 conciliation agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.