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Affordable housing development proposed for East Towson

Affordable housing development proposed for East Towson
Red Maple Place, an affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on the undeveloped land pictured to the right from East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson. (Libby Solomon/Towson Times)

A proposed affordable apartment building in East Towson is drawing skepticism from residents and environmental activists raising concerns about issues including traffic and watershed impacts.

The proposed 56-unit development on the 2.5-acre parcel between 413 E. Pennsylvania Ave. and Joppa Road, dubbed Red Maple Place, is in the early stages of the county development process. Homes For America, an Annapolis-based nonprofit housing developer, is spearheading construction and will manage the property once it is complete.

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But neighbors of the property in East Towson and Harris Hill condominiums have concerns about traffic and stormwater management.

Adelaide Bentley, president of the East Towson Community Association, thinks the property is too small, and that the neighborhood is too crammed, to handle one more large apartment building. She listed buildings built in recent decades in what was once a small neighborhood of modest single-family homes — Virginia Towers, Tabco Towers, and further up the street projects like Circle East.

“Truthfully, I don’t think we need any more apartment buildings … How many places do they think they can put in East Towson? Why don’t they try someplace else?” Bentley said.

“It’s the last piece of green space that we have in the community,” said Karen Walker, who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue next door to the planned development.

Walker, an East Towson native who grew up in the tight-knit, historically African American community, said she has no problem with the fact that the units will be affordable — it is about the traffic. “We’re so crowded right now,” she said.

“Being a good addition to the neighborhood and conformance to all applicable laws, standards, and regulations is very important to us,” said Diane Clyde, vice president of development for Homes for America, pointing to the nonprofit’s track record of building 81 communities.

“We are very proud of our communities and the excellent housing we provide for our residents and the communities in which we are located. We look forward to the completion of Red Maple Place and providing high quality housing in Towson.”

The project as planned would have access from Joppa Road. Michele Yendall, secretary of the Harris Hill Condominium Association, which is next to the property, said her 56-unit community is concerned about traffic on Joppa Road, which she said already makes for near-impossible turns during rush hour. She said her community is worried about new residents using Harris Hill’s private road, McManus Way, as an access route.

“It cost us $100,000 to repave the street, we don’t want to add more cars to it,” Yendall said.

Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, who represents Towson, said last year he amended the county’s Basic Services Map to temporarily block Red Maple Place until the county committed to traffic improvements. He said a county traffic engineer attended an East Towson community meeting last week and announced some proposed improvements including crosswalks and resurfacing.

Aside from traffic, neighborhood leaders and the Green Towson Alliance are concerned about the property’s affect on stormwater runoff, which Bentley and others say tends to pool on Pennsylvania Avenue, downhill from the proposed development.

Red Maple Place received a variance from the county Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability in May to reduce its forest buffer requirements to build on the land, which is partially forested.

Beth Miller, from the Green Towson Alliance, said while the environmental group does not oppose Red Maple Place, they believe the goals of building affordable housing could be maintained while using a smaller footprint by making the building taller and more narrow. Currently it is set to be four stories high.

“In meeting one obligation, affordable housing, we shouldn’t be undermining other obligations,” Miller said, saying undermining stormwater management and water quality to allow for affordable housing is “sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

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Community association leaders from Campus Hills, Harris Hill and East Towson all wrote letters to the county opposing the variance, as did the Towson Communities Alliance, but the variance was ultimately granted.

County officials have incentive to smooth the process for Homes for America: a 2016 conciliation agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the county 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.

“I remain committed to equitable and affordable housing in Baltimore County as we work towards full implementation of the Voluntary Compliance Agreement,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. “We believe Red Maple Place will be an asset to the community and the residents of our county as a high-quality, affordable housing option.”

Baltimore County is providing $2.1 million in assistance to Red Maple Place in the form of a 40-year loan, county spokesman T.J. Smith said.

Qualifying units are those available to families with household incomes below 60 percent of the area median income, including but not limited to those using Section 8 vouchers. Homes for America did not immediately answer a question about what kind of affordable housing Red Maple Place will contain.

Two project-based vouchers, or vouchers attached to a unit rather than a tenant, were awarded to Red Maple Place through the Baltimore Regional Project Based Voucher Program in 2018, according to the Baltimore County website.

The HUD agreement stipulates that the county encourage development of affordable housing in wealthier areas where it is not already clustered.

Towson is one of those areas — but Marks said looking at census-level data can obscure tiny East Towson’s structural challenges. Founded by freed slaves in the 1850s, the neighborhood is historically black, and poorer than other areas of Towson. It also already contains two affordable housing buildings, Tabco Towers and Virginia Towers.

“I know one thing, they don’t go to West Towson and build all this stuff,” Bentley said, referring to a neighborhood that is, on average, wealthier and whiter than her own.

For Bentley, the problem is not the project itself — it is the site for which it is planned. She said a site like the former 7-Eleven on Joppa Road, one that is already developed, would be a better way to incorporate the building into the neighborhood and would not “interfere with anyone.”

But what Bentley really wants is for developers looking for opportunities in Towson to look elsewhere. Her neighborhood, she said, has seen enough construction.

“Building is not my expertise,” Bentley said. “But I do know if they keep building and keep building and keep building, they're going to drown us out.”

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