Area grows, community shrinks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Clifton Parker has lived on Bestgate Road for 45 years, in a brick-front rancher on land that has been in his family for more than a century. Parker, 75, raised his four children in that house, and he's not inclined to give it up.

But holding on hasn't been easy. Shopping centers and condos now crowd Bestgate Road, where there was once only farmland. And earlier this month, a real estate investor offered Parker $1 million for his 1-acre property.

Parker turned him down. "The idea is, what if you don't want to sell?" he asked.

It's a question that looms in the long-range future for many of Parker's neighbors in Bestgate, a community of about three dozen single-family homes along Bestgate Road between Medical Parkway and the Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis mall.

Many of the residents, like Parker, are lifelong Bestgate residents now in retirement and living on fixed incomes. They have witnessed the steady progression of the Bestgate Road corridor as it grew from a rural residential area to a heavily traveled, increasingly commercialized throughway.

With the changes have come challenges: greater traffic, higher property taxes and a sense of being closed in by development.

Next to Parker's house, what was once open land is now the Scott's Crossing condominium complex. Across from Scott's Crossing is Seabreeze, another condo. On the opposite corner is a Sunrise Assisted Living facility.

And the pace of development is accelerating.

Anne Arundel Medical Center, already visible through the pine trees behind Parker's house, has announced a $200 million, nine-story expansion project scheduled to begin in 2007.

Westfield is scheduled to start construction next month on a 240,000-square-foot expansion on its Bestgate Road side. Across from the mall, K. Hovnanian Homes has started building the first five houses of Monticello, a 76-lot residential development offering single-family homes for $700,000 to $800,000.

Meanwhile, beside the Monticello houses, stands the steel framework of Anne Arundel Gastroenterology Associates' Maryland Center for Digestive Health, a 41,000-square-foot medical center set to open this summer.

"I have memories, I have things that are very important to me on Bestgate Road," said Patricia Young, a lifelong Bestgate resident. "I would like to see at least part of that being preserved instead of taking everything away."

She was speaking at Fowler United Methodist Church, which occupies the land next to the new health facility. Since 1871, the church has served as a gathering place for the Bestgate community.

After services on a recent Sunday, several members of the congregation met to discuss their reactions to the boom in growth around their homes.

Bestgate residents said they're not opposed to the development projects.

"We see them as opportunities," said Charles Proctor, Fowler's pastor. He said the church will be working with the new center next door and that he has already met with the facility's planners.

But some worried that commercialization will come at the cost of the community's history and distinctive character.

"People come in here realizing, 'OK, great property, great land.' But this place is not about the land. What attracts me to this church here is the people, their values and their beliefs," said Roger Isom, 40, a Navy officer from Severna Park whose wife grew up in Bestgate. "Don't destroy the history of this place. Don't destroy the sense of family, the sense of community."

Parker recalled learning about the simple start to the community when he was 5 years old. He says the entire area was farmland owned by a man named Best. The gate that Best put across the one-lane dirt path on his property gave rise to the name.

In the late 1800s, three of Parker's uncles bought portions of the farmland that became Bestgate, gradually selling plots to family members and other African-Americans in the Annapolis area. Over more than 100 years, a tight-knit community developed as these families built single-family homes along the largely rural Bestgate corridor.

"When I was growing up, everyone in this neighborhood was a family member," said Young, one of Parker's cousins. "That kind of kept me straight, if nothing else."

Longtime residents watched as Bestgate Road evolved from a dirt road to a paved two-lane street. But as neighboring areas developed, including the addition of Annapolis Mall in 1980, Bestgate increasingly began to serve as a main thoroughfare leading to U.S. 50 and downtown Annapolis.

In 1993 the road was expanded to a four-lane highway divided by a median strip; few single-family homes now remain on the north side of the road.

Dinny White, a retired professional planner who has worked with the Bestgate Area Community Association, said he understands the situation in which many Bestgate residents find themselves.

"They take immense pride in the fact that a long time ago they lived downtown and got shoved out of town by gentrification," he said. "They came out to Bestgate Road where nobody wanted to be and they found single-family opportunities and built their homes. Now we're back sort of looking at the same thing happening all over again."

For those who live along Bestgate Road, traffic problems have emerged as one of the complications of development.

"I hate to think that traffic's going to get crazy. It's already crazy," said Merlan Banks, 76, who lives directly across from the church. "Sometimes it takes me 10 minutes to get out of my driveway."

Rising property values have also led to increased property taxes for Bestgate residents. One of Parker's sisters owned a house west of his on Bestgate Road, but sold it to a developer after property taxes rose too high. That house is now unoccupied. Parker pays $6,000 in annual property taxes, a sum that he said is difficult to cover on his fixed income.

The influx of more commercial property nearby, he said, is likely to raise that amount even higher. "The taxes are going to be so bad that the older people on Bestgate Road are not going to be able to stay," he said.

But at the church, residents said they're prepared to face the challenges that come with the changes. Members who have moved on from Bestgate return to the church for weekday events and Sunday services.

Proctor, the pastor, said church leaders will be reaching out to the new residents of Monticello, welcoming them to join the congregation. He's hopeful that the existing and future communities along Bestgate Road will grow together, and that new families will view Fowler as a place for them as well.

"It's not the idea of just hanging on. Change is inevitable. And we have to change along with it," he said. "This is a heritage that needs to be preserved. We're convinced that we're going to do that."

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