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USF&G; expansion plan triggers outcry

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On the autumn Saturday Dorothy Jewell's son was to wed in the yard of her house seven years ago, the noise from construction was deafening. Not 300 feet away, USF&G; Corp. bulldozers ground earth to make way for a multilevel glass building that would be the newest showpiece of its sprawling Mount Washington campus.

But shortly before 4 p.m., the noise ceased -- thanks to USF&G;'s commitment to be a good corporate neighbor.

"I told them, 'Hey, I'm having a wedding in a couple of weeks. Could you have the workmen knock off a little early?' " Mrs. Jewell recalls.

Today, though, the relationship between residents and USF&G; has soured, as they battle over the future of the company's Mount Washington corporate campus.

At issue is how the campus, in the northern neck of the neighborhood, will be developed as part of USF&G;'s plan to relocate 800 workers from its downtown office tower.

USF&G; wants to build a 144-room conference center and add nearly 1,000 parking spaces on the campus, which straddles the city-county line. Company officials call the proposal a 20-year plan and have asked for the residents' approval as quickly as possible.

Residents believe the company is moving too fast. They fear that their neighborhood will be ruined by the increased development, clogged roads and looming corporate buildings.

Although each side holds out hope that things will improve, mistrust, fear and frustration now define their relationship. And both sides have called on their lawyers.

Two weeks ago, the City Planning Commission recommended that the company build only about 750 parking spaces, and tabled a decision on the conference center and remaining parking.

Commission Chairman Stelios Spiliadis called it a compromise, though neither side was happy. He told the residents and company representatives: "The two of you are like brothers who cannot get along."

"We had a very good relationship back then," area resident Dr. Lawrence Lichtenstein said, recalling the company's early days in Mount Washington.

When USF&G; settled into the neighborhood in 1982 and created a training center, officials made sure not to disturb the historic, professional neighborhood, said Dr. Lichtenstein, who heads The Terraces Community, an association of 14 houses surrounded by USF&G; on three sides.

Neighbors and the company would watch over each other's property, looking for vandals and burglars. The company bought books for the elementary schools. And residents helped the company plant flowers.

News about relocation plan

About six weeks ago, residents learned that USF&G; was set to relocate all of its employees from the downtown tower to the campus at Mount Washington. They had to read about the move and expansion plans in the newspaper.

That was the first thing that angered them. Residents, who expected to be in on the decision-making earlier in the process, also said the company has not offered them detailed plans of the expansion.

Some want building design plans and descriptions of the projected traffic flow, as well as the results of an environmental impact study that takes into account noise and vehicle emissions.

And, most importantly, they want time to digest the proposed changes. At least six months.

"This thing is not on a fast track," said Jim Jacobs, head of the Mount Washington Improvement Association, during the planning commission meeting two weeks ago. "It's on a greased skid. We can't get ahold of it."

Now they long for a past when tolerance and understanding from both sides was not at so much of a premium. "We are angry, not miffed, that they have not come to us and [allowed] us to participate," Dr. Lichtenstein said. "We have the ability to slow them up for years. Unless they sit down and talk with us, we are going to do every legal thing to stop them."

Dr. Lichtenstein's neighbor, Mary Ellen Acey, has threatened to leave ifcity officials do not stop USF&G.;

"If this expansion is approved, we will join the exodus of middle class families from Baltimore City," Mrs. Acey said.

Still, Mrs. Jewell and most other residents haven't abandoned hope.

"We expected this to be simpler. It is not a plutonium refinery," said Raymond C. Celli, USF&G; assistant vice president for real estate services, during the planning commission meeting two weeks ago.

Since Feb. 28, when USF&G; representatives first met with Mount Washington residents, more than 15 meetings have been held and expansion plans have changed several times. For example, the company reduced the number of parking spaces on one site from 100 to 70.

Still, an agreement seems far off.

USF&G; needs to know that Mount Washington will be a place where it can grow, Mr. Celli said. The move is an effort to consolidate its headquarters and slash expenses, because leasing the downtown tower costs too much. Company officials hope to complete the move by 1997.

Traffic studies done by the company said that the main neighborhood roads -- Smith, Kelly and Greely avenues -- will not turn into bottlenecks. Company representatives also said that they will encourage employees to use car pools and mass transit. And they pledge to work with residents on the design of the buildings.

But one thing will not change: The company said it needs everything it has requested.

"We are under cost pressure and expense pressure," said Gary R. Preysner, USF&G;'s vice president for administration. "If we were to wait, it's going to be the same thing. We know how many parking spaces and conference centers we need. That ain't going to change."

As for specifics, Mr. Preysner said the community is asking for something he can't provide. The plans "will always be sketchy until the time we decide to build it," he said.

"Our biggest fear is that this will become a David and Goliath thing," said spokeswoman Kerrie Burch-DeLuca.

More meetings are planned in the coming weeks because "we want to be good neighbors," Mr. Celli said, adding that he is hopeful future meetings will allay residents' fears.

'Winners and losers'

"There are always winners and losers when it comes to land use changes," says Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who heads the Land Use Committee. The committee could approve, reject or modify the proposal. Mr. Ambridge has set a June 15 deadline.

"I need to get this done one way or the other before the council recess. We owe it to the company. The community would as soon drag this out forever, but the company doesn't have the luxury," he said.

It is a difficult position for the city to be in, he said. At stake, he said, is "our thirst for economic development while at the same time addressing the stability of the community."

Construction of an Interstate 83 interchange between Ruxton Road and Northern Parkway would do a lot to alleviate residents' fears about traffic piling up in their neighborhood. City officials want to push the project ahead, but they have to get the cooperation of Baltimore County.

Chances are slim that will happen because of a $30-million to $50-million cost, said county transportation coordinator J. Craig Forrest.

USF&G; has said that it would not help pay for the construction, something residents were counting on.

Resident Jim Mack fears his neighbors will lose in the long run.

"The reality will be that the company will turn its back on the neighborhood. I don't think that is their intention, but that will be the result."

USF&G; EXPANSION PLAN

USF&G; Corp.'s proposal to develop three sites on its Mount Washington campus would:

* Expand a 26-space parking lot at Smith and Newbury avenues to 70 spaces.

* Add a 270-space parking garage and 144-room conference center on a lot now occupied by the empty Children's Guild building off Smith Avenue.

* Add a six-level, 925-space parking garage and cafeteria on the corporate campus.

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