Coldspring New Town's grand dream goes unfulfilled


High on a hill in North Baltimore sits a concrete foundation for a building that was never built, in an innovative community that was never finished: Coldspring New Town.

The block-long foundation, built 12 years ago with $3.6 million in tax dollars, sits on land once envisioned for stores, schools, lakes and 3,800 of the most dramatically designed homes in the world.

Coldspring, designed by internationally known architect Moshe Safdie, was to be Baltimore's middle-class magnet -- a 375-acre, self-contained neighborhood that would entice suburbanites to pour property taxes into the ailing city's coffers.

But after years of recession and federal cuts to Baltimore, there is still no town at the New Town.

That dream died quietly this month when the City Council revised the Coldspring urban renewal plan, scrapping the Israeli architect's grand designs for lakes, stores, offices and a health care center. The unused foundation, designed for an apartment building, is symbolic of what was left unfinished.

Today, there are just 252 homeowners, fiercely loyal to their ultra-modern, light-filled homes. And modest plans by a developer to add 102 traditionally designed homes next to the Cylburn Arboretum.

"It was a noble dream in trying to establish a solid development that would lure the middle class back to Baltimore. The problem was probably in design and execution. But it was not a misguided effort," says Marc Levine, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee urban studies professor who is researching Coldspring for a book about the Baltimore renaissance.

Coldspring New Town was conceived after the racial violence of the 1960s, as Baltimore officials searched for ways to stem the flight of the middle class to the suburbs.

Baltimore's population had already dropped -- from 939,000 in 1960 to 906,000 in 1970 -- when housing commissioner Robert C. Embry Jr. invited Mr. Safdie to design Coldspring on one of the city's largest undeveloped tracts of land, just 10 minutes from downtown. The site, surrounded by hills of mature trees, wild dogwood and raspberry bushes, was an idyllic refuge.

Mr. Embry says he wanted "to show the city was on the cutting edge" of urban redevelopment. And with federal money flowing into Baltimore, local leaders, including then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer, seized on the opportunity to turn the city around.

The first homes, finished in 1977, were called deckhouses, because they were attached to a large concrete community deck -- with cars parked neatly underneath.

The homes had common walls, like traditional Baltimore rowhouses, but the similarities with city living ended there. With homes built into the above-ground decks -- named for herbs and spices such as Bayleaf and Nutmeg -- residents could walk from one end of the neighborhood to the other without ever crossing a road.

And there were no trash cans at Coldspring -- garbage is disposed of through community chutes leading to bins hidden under the decks.

The avant-garde community design immediately attracted adventurous city dwellers, including M. Jay Brodie, Mr. Embry's successor as housing commissioner; Hilda E. Ford, who was the city's personnel director; and a racially integrated assortment of teachers, lawyers, architects, artists, journalists and retirees.

And there was another draw: The city offered federally subsidized mortgages at 7.5 percent interest at a time when conventional interest rates were in the teens.

Nearly half of the first 100 homeowners moved to Coldspring from the suburbs.

Charles and Lola Laubheim were among the first to move there, not only for the neighborhood's architecture, but for its diversity. Says Mr. Laubheim, "It was very integrated. Every race, every religion. You name it."

Rocky beginning

Still, Coldspring got off to a bad start.

Mr. Safdie's designed proved difficult and expensive to build. Some homeowners had leaking walls and inadequate heat. They sued Mr. Safdie and the builder, settling out of court for $2 million. News of the suit slowed sales and temporarily gave Coldspring a bad name.

Gradually, the city's grand plan came apart.

Across the street from the 252 deckhouses, Coldspring's developer built the concrete foundation for a senior citizens' apartment building. But the building -- deemed too costly to construct on Mr. Safdie's foundation -- was placed in another part of Coldspring and built in a cheaper, more conventional design.

By then, Ronald Reagan had become president and slowed the flow of federal money to cities as dramatically as the population had dropped in Baltimore -- from 906,000 in 1970 to 786,000 in 1980.

That hurt the project, which was very dependent on government money. For example, during the 1970s and '80s, the houses built at Coldspring required more than $20 million in government funds to subsidize private construction costs.

Housing construction slowed. Plans for a conference center -- on the spot originally intended for the senior citizens' apartment building -- never materialized.

And two small foundations along Coldspring's northern border, where other Safdie homes were planned, were left unfinished. Overgrown by trees and vines, they are now marked "ruins" on the city's planning map, and are slated for demolition.

Mr. Safdie says he waited for a phone call all through the 1980s to say Baltimore would resume building the stalled Coldspring project. But it never came.

"I never understood why in the '80s Coldspring was not attractive to developers," he says. "Maybe it was a lack of leadership in the city that never pushed it forward."

Mr. Embry also is disappointed that Coldspring was never completed. "People have not valued the project in the same way I did, and things got stuck."

Nevertheless, the small piece of the project that was built, is "one of the better investments the city made," he says, noting the property taxes that homeowners pay today.

Last year's tax bills to Coldspring homeowners totaled just over $500,000, according to city tax records.

"It's not very much given the size of the original investment, but it's better than if there was nothing going on there," says Mr. Levine, the professor who has studied Cold spring.

Loyal residents

Although the city has pulled back from its grand plan for Coldspring, signs of vitality remain.

Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse wants to build 102 houses along Cylburn Arboretum's southern border -- a proposal favored by the Coldspring community association but criticized by some naturalists.

And Coldspring's shortcomings haven't deterred many staunch fans.

Residents say they love the houses for their creative use of light and dramatic design. High ceilings are topped with clerestory windows, making the rooms appear larger. And a living room appears suspended in space as it overlooks a dining room like a balcony.

"I have yet to see a house where light is used so creatively. It has a feeling of wonderful space," said Ms. Ford, who recently retired as state Secretary of the Department of Personnel. Her neighbors, she said, "seem to be chosen by God. There's a wonderful respect and dignity to the people who live here." She was sorry to see the Laubheims leave.

Retired teachers in their 70s, they moved out reluctantly this month -- after nearly 16 years at Coldspring -- to avoid climbing the many steps inside their townhouse.

Another neighbor they left behind is Mrs. Laubheim's former third-grade pupil from Cross Country Elementary School -- Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg, now a member of the House of Delegates from the 42nd District. He's so settled in Coldspring that he recently bought the condominium adjacent to his, knocked out the walls and doubled his living space.

Even architectural historian Phoebe Stanton has mellowed her views since she left Coldspring in a huff more than a decade ago, after discovering leaks and heating problems in her home. Today she calls Coldspring, "a great, big, beautiful experiment. I just wish Coldspring well."

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