In a city struggling to rebuild its population, construction cranes would seem to be a welcome sign. But office, shopping and housing projects in the works in Northwest Baltimore have some residents worried about the impact of development on a degraded stream that flows through their neighborhoods on its way to the harbor.
Cranes tower over an 11-acre tract on Wabash Avenue, where the Social Security Administration plans to move 1,600 workers from the federal agency's aging downtown headquarters. Next door, Northwest Plaza is seeking the city's blessing to add a restaurant, bank branch and more shops to its 1970s-era strip mall. Nearby, a proposed 57-unit senior housing complex has won preliminary approval to be built in a patch of woods that was once part of a Jewish cemetery.
"We need to look at what's happening with residential development and commercial development and how to protect the Chesapeake Bay," said Helena Hicks, a longtime resident of Grove Park.
Hicks, 78, said she is concerned about the health of Powder Mill Run, a tributary of the Gwynns Falls that drains a swath of Northwest Baltimore. She helped launch a campaign to restore the Gwynns Falls 25 years ago but said it's still in poor shape today, and she fears the new projects will only make matters worse.
Decades ago, she recalled, her children played in Powder Mill Run and collected big turtles along its banks. Since then, she said, "it has degenerated into this small little stream, polluted for man and beast."
Old tires and other debris clutter the wooded streambed, while residents living along it say they've endured years of sewage overflows, as well as flooding and wastewater backups into their basements.
"We were told when it was raining not to flush our commodes," said Bobbie Lockett, 72, who lives across Kennison Avenue from the stream.
City officials acknowledge Powder Mill Run, like much of the rest of the Gwynns Falls, is in bad shape, with chronic sewage overflows and leaks a major problem. Bacteria in the stream from animal or human waste frequently exceed safe levels for even casual contact with the water, and nutrient pollution levels also are high, according to Kimberly Burgess, chief of surface water management for the Department of Public Works.
City crews recently installed a "backflow preventer" on Kennison Avenue to keep sewage out of homes there, said Art Shapiro, the city's chief of utility maintenance. Work is expected to start in the next couple of years on a $5 million replacement and lining of some leaky sewer lines in the neighborhood, according to Public Works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. A more ambitious project to install a larger sewer line there is still in design and at least four years away.
A $3.5 million makeover of Powder Mill Run has also been discussed, which would seek to reduce erosion and flooding by restoring about 16 acres of wetlands along its banks. Federal funds are available for design, but the city has yet to commit to the project, according to Kim Gross of the Army Corps of Engineers. City officials say they'll go forward with local money if need be.
"It seems like the community has been seeking relief from the city for some time, for years," said David Flores, water-quality manager for Blue Water Baltimore, the harbor watershed watchdog group.
What the city has done has helped but not remedied the flooding and sewage problems, he said, and residents now worry that the added development will "take a situation that's already been out of control and ratchet it up a couple of notches."
City officials say the development projects some residents are questioning all have met requirements for limiting their effect on the stream. The Social Security complex will have a green roof and "micro-bioretention" to treat some of the rainfall running off its roofs and parking lots, Burgess wrote in an email.
The Northwest Plaza project includes plans to remove a half-acre of asphalt on the 25-acre site, plant grass and trees, and install a "rain garden" to filter sediment and other pollutants from storm runoff, according to Matthew Allen, development director for Klein Enterprises, which owns the center.
The Planning Commission approved the mall plan Thursday. The City Council still needs to consider the project.
Finally, the senior housing complex to be built next to Arlington Cemetery will include replanting of 70 trees and other landscaping to mitigate for clearing a third of the 9-acre site, according to Kyle Leggs, an area planner in the city planning department.
"All of these have been vetted. … Nothing in the area is causing a problem," said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents the Northwest Baltimore district.
She said city officials are seeing that the development doesn't hurt the stream. Spector asked why Hicks had raised questions about the projects and helped organize a community meeting last weekend to discuss their concerns.
Hicks said she wants more than just assurances that the development won't affect the stream, and she contended that over the years the city has done little more than pay lip service to restoring the Gwynns Falls. She pointed out a faded 25-year-old sign hanging on a neighbor's fence proclaiming Grove Park to be a "model pollution-free neighborhood" in the then-new stream restoration campaign.
Preston Greene, president of the community association for neighboring Howard Park, said he shares Hicks' concerns about development's impact on Powder Mill Run.
"It's in pretty rough shape as well," Greene said of the stretch flowing through his neighborhood.
Needed restoration work identified years ago has yet to be done, he said, and while the Northwest Plaza representatives at last weekend's community meeting said the project would not hurt the stream, he wants to see the details spelled out in writing.
"We're hoping to at least stabilize its current condition while we wait for the long-term" fixes, Greene said.