Towson floats ideas for jail site

The Baltimore Sun

Criminals did time in jailhouses at the corner of Towsontown Boulevard and Bosley Avenue as far back as the mid-19th century. At least two were hanged on the property.

Now Towson-area community leaders have their eyes on the land as a spot for fun and relaxation. Some favor a park with a gazebo and benches. Others see it as a good site for indoor basketball courts.

And one group thinks it would be a good place for a swim club.

"If you build it, people will walk to it," said Mike Ertel, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations and a committee member of Towson Swim Center, the organization that would run a members-only pool at the site.

Towson neighborhoods, he said, "have a soul, but have no heart. There's no central gathering place."

The group would, if the county agrees, lease the land from the county and raise money for what would be a $1.5 million project. But not everyone thinks a private club belongs on public property.

"It establishes a recreational caste system in the county," said Corinne D. Becker, board member of the Riderwood Hills Community Association in Towson.

Recreation officials are pushing for the property to be used for a community center with basketball courts and a meeting room. Donna Spicer, a community activist, prefers that proposal.

"For a community center, you have to pay a fee, but it's still open to the public," she said.

County officials say they hope to decide on a plan for the land by the end of the year.

The property at issue includes about 1.8 acres of buildable land across from Towson University.

The county's first jail opened on the property in the 1850s. A convicted rapist was hanged from a scaffold there in 1873, and a man convicted of assault suffered the same fate, according to the Baltimore County Office of Planning.

Another detention center was built behind the original jail building in the mid-1950s, and that structure became the county women's jail in 1983. Last year, the county razed the building and moved inmates to the recently expanded detention center on Kenilworth Drive.

The older building, which came to be known as the warden's house, remains. It was declared a historic landmark in 1991.

The county is to spend about $700,000 to stabilize the building but there are no plans to renovate it because bringing the building up to code would cost about $2.7 million, according to Robert J. Barrett, the county director of recreation and parks. The public will not be able to use the building because of safety concerns.

The county has held two community meetings to gather input about plans for the site. At the most recent one, held in October, many residents supported the pool idea, Barrett said.

The county does not have any public pools, but two are in the works. The Randallstown Community Center, under construction and expected to open in about 18 months, will include a public swimming pool. The Dundalk Community Center, which is scheduled to open in late 2009, will also house a public swimming pool.

The Towsontowne Recreation Council has proposed the building of a community center on the former jail site to help the organization retain and add programs. The rec council had to cut several programs, is in jeopardy of losing others and is unable to offer certain programs offered by other recreation councils because of a lack of facilities, said Chuck Warns, vice president of the organization.

"It won't solve all of our needs, but the building would certainly help solve some of our needs," Warns said.

Opponents of the community center proposal believe that the building would exacerbate existing parking problems in the neighborhood. While the pool would be open only a few months a year and many would-be members are expected to walk there, a community center would be open year-round, and opponents fear that many who would use it would drive to it.

Some opponents of that proposal point out that the county might not be prepared to pay for such a project now. A 9,000- square-foot community center would cost about $2 million, Barrett said.

Others support the proposal for a park with a gazebo, benches and a bike trail. The park would cost about $100,000, Barrett said.

Barrett said he expects a decision soon.

"I'm listening to the community," he said. "I don't want the site not to be used."

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