College urged for site


A boarded-up, World War II-era apartment complex owned by the Army could be the site of the county's next community college campus if Edgewood community leaders have their way.

But that plan seems to conflict with plans Harford County Housing Inc. has for the buildings.

Edgewood Community Planning Council members are recommending that Washington Court, 39 acres on Cedar Lane, become a satellite campus of Harford Community College.

The Army is declaring the property surplus and may turn it over to the county.

Robert Santoni, planning council president, said the campus could become home to branches of other community services, including the public library, the county health department, parks and recreation offices and possibly a day care center.

"There are infinite possibilities," said Mr. Santoni, who was appointed to head the Edgewood council by County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann.

"If you want higher education for your children, sometimes you have to bring it to them. And if the bulk of the population is on this side of the county, why don't we service it?"

But Mrs. Rehrmann said it's too early to tell what the best use might be for Washington Court.

"It's good in concept," she said of the council's proposal, "but how are are you going to fund it?"

She said that much of Washington Court's fate hinges on how much it would cost the county to take over the decades-old complex.

"I think it could be a shared option," she said late last week, noting that it might be possible to combine housing and community services on the property. "It's all still up for discussion."

The vacant complex on Aberdeen Proving Ground property in the heart of residential Edgewood includes 13 three-story buildings totaling 276 apartments.

As the local jurisdiction where it is situated, the county will have the option of acquiring the property once the Army declares it surplus.

But the planning council's recommendation, which includes razing most of the buildings, took another Harford agency by surprise.

"I think the best use of the property is residential," said Frank Hodgetts, executive director of Harford County Housing Inc., a nonprofit organization created to build and refurbish homes countywide for low-income buyers.

That organization has had the property on the top of its list of potential sites for rehabilitation for more than a year.

Mr. Hodgetts said he was disappointed to hear that the planning council was leaning toward recommending that the buildings be demolished instead of converted into homes.

"The existing structures could be reused," he said. "I would like to see them as some blend of market-rate and affordable housing."

He said the organization has access to state funds that could be used to get potential homeowners low-interest loans.

"There are a lot of people going in different directions on that project, and we need to get together on it," said Cele Gast, who was appointed to Harford County Housing's board of directors by Mrs. Rehrmann.

Ms. Gast said she and Mr. Hodgetts would like to present the details of their housing proposal to the Edgewood Planning Council at its August meeting.

Steve Pannill, vice president of Harford Community College, confirmed that college officials would like a satellite campus in Edgewood.

"It's a major population center and where business growth will be, and we need to be a vital part of that," Mr. Pannill said. "We are serious about having a permanent presence in the Edgewood-Joppa area; we're less concerned about where specifically it will be."

He said that while Washington Court is more than adequate in size and presents an attractive setting, access from Cedar Drive "is not ideal" and most of the buildings would have to be razed.

He added that the idea of a shared facility with the county library is appealing.

"That partnership makes absolute sense," he said.

County Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton, who represents Edgewood, supports the planning council proposal.

"The most viable alternative for that site is a satellite campus and partnerships that go along with it," she said.

Mrs. Heselton and planning council members have approached leaders of the county library, health department, parks and recreation department and the Susquehanna Private Industry Council, which helps find jobs for county residents, about the possibility of joining the potential campus.

Irene Padilla, director of the Harford County Library, said she has discussed the council's proposal with the Board of Library Trustees, but that without more details about the site, she would reserve judgment.

"It sounds like a very interesting idea and we'd be enthusiastic about looking at the site," she said, noting that it is closer to Route 24 than the current Edgewood library and might draw more Joppa-area patrons.

But Ms. Padilla said the county already has purchased property next to the Edgewood Library on Route 755, less than a mile from Washington Court, for the planned expansion of that branch.

The Edgewood library is due for renovation by the end of the century.

Meanwhile, the federal government is gathering information on the condition of the Washington Court buildings and has to make environmental assessments before the value of the property can be determined.

"It's a very lengthy process for the federal government to turn it into surplus," said Larry Klimovitz, county director of administration.

While all the asbestos in the building apparently has been removed, there still is dangerous lead around the windows.

Also, the plumbing and electrical systems have to be assessed.

If the county were to take over the buildings, county water lines would have to be extended to the property.

"It's conceivable that the structures would be better torn down, but I think it's doubtful," Mr. Klimovitz said. "These are substantial buildings of brick construction."

Because of the size of the buildings, Mrs. Rehrmann originally had proposed that they be revived as dwellings and encouraged Harford County Housing Inc. to find funding sources to make low-interest mortgages available, he said.

In fact, Mrs. Heselton sponsored a resolution last fall in the County Council encouraging the executive to assume ownership from the Army to ensure that the units be sold as homes to individual buyers.

She and other council members feared that in the hands of a private investor, the apartments could revert to government-subsidized rental units in an area that already has such housing.

Now Mrs. Heselton is joining community leaders who want the land cleared and used as a community college campus.

"I didn't change my mind," she said last week. "It's just that since then we've found a better mousetrap.

"I feel it would be much better for the community to have a partnership that provides educational benefits and other services that go along with it in the center of the community and within walking distance of most residents.

"If we could bring the library and parks and rec and the others into it, it could be a real community center. It would be an identity for Edgewood," she said.

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