Vinyl siding in Coldspring

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Whenever planners of Baltimore's 1970s urban renaissance come together, one question invariably crops up: "Was Coldspring a good idea or not?"

Coldspring was then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer's idea of building a "new town" within Baltimore City that would offer many of the amenities that the suburbs had.

Located on a hillside bounded by Cold Spring Lane and Greenspring Avenue and overlooking the Jones Falls Valley, it was as convenient to downtown as Towson. The new town was to be home for more than 3,000 families, who would live close to nature trails, have varied recreational choices and schools of their own. Indeed, the community was to stretch south of Cold Spring Lane, where houses would be built on cliffs overlooking an old quarry.

Nearly 17 years later, much of that dream has been abandoned.

There are no office complexes, no shopping facilities, no conference center or hotel -- only 252 unusual-looking, cinder-block deck houses are in place. They were built on concrete decks that doubled as underground garages. They were sold with subsidies so hefty it was once estimated that each unit cost $40,000 in infrastructure expenses before any actual construction was even started.

In today's atmosphere, it can be safely said no one would even try a costly project like Coldspring. But in the 1970s, when the middle-class flight was in full swing, it was one of the few new residential communities built in the city. In strict dollar-and-cents terms it may have been an abysmal failure, but as a social experiment it continues to work.

Because no one knew what Coldspring's residential and income mix would be, those buying there had to do so out of conviction. Today its residents offer a remarkably successful racial and economic mix, just as they did 17 years ago.

The news out of Coldspring today is that the long-stalled community is set for expansion. Two builders are about to start construction on more than 100 townhouses and individual homes on the perimeter along Cylburn Park. The townhouses will sell for under $100,000; the individual homes will start at $137,000.

The addition will boast the total suburban look. Vinyl sidings, individual garages, optional fireplaces and other extras. Even the Coldspring name has been replaced with "Woodlands."

To the purists, who liked Moshe Safdie's unusual original architecture, this may sound sacrilegious. The main thing, though, is to get Coldspring moving again. A new town was a good and optimistic idea. But its houses were so unusual in design they never really tried to respond to the demands of the marketplace. Maybe now they can.

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