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Dumbarton parking plan raises questions

A proposed large paved bus lot and additional parking behind Dumbarton Middle School as part of its $27.5-million renovation and addition project has come under scrutiny from architects and planners in the community. They say they aren't necessary for the walker-heavy school.

"Our bottom line here is that the outside site plan works fine and it should not change," Stu Sirota, president of the Rodgers Forge Community Association, said. "It's worked [the way it is] for over half a century. The school was built in 1956, and these grounds and the public space are a treasured community asset. We think that any change that happen there need to be thoroughly vetted with the neighborhood first."

Rodgers Forge residents questioned the plans at the Feb. 11 Board of Education meeting.

Smolen Emr Ilkovitch Architects presented a draft of their plans at the Nov. 5, 2013, Board of Education meeting. The design calls for renovations to add air conditioning and modern technology infrastructure to most of the school, plus an addition near the front entrance for administrative offices and a new media center.

The front addition will require the current bus loop and parking situation to be drastically altered, according to the design. A bus loop that can fit 17 buses would replace the current bus loop and parking area behind the school, and a new parking lot would be created behind the school.

The plans also call for regrading along Dumbarton Road, including a large retaining wall. Though the architects said no parking would be lost, nearby residents question the wisdom for having such a large bus area and parking space for a school with so many walking students.

"The thing that caught my eye initially was the huge area of pavement that they have in the bus turnaround of the school," West Towson resident Chris Parts said in an interview Feb. 14. "One of the issues, I think, is that they had identified 17 buses that travel through that turnaround there. I didn't think there was any way they had that many buses. They recognized [later that] they don't have that many buses."

Shortly after the plan was presented to the Baltimore County Board of Education on Nov. 5, Parts began mentioning his issues with the parking to community activists. At the Nov. 19 school board meeting, he spoke of his concerns during the meeting's public comment session.

His concerns mainly focus on the traffic flow and pedestrian safety. Both the large bus loop and the parent drop-off loop that will be part of the rear parking area are unnecessary, he said, and added that the latter could encourage more cars on the crowded street and create a dangerous condition for the students.

"It seemed to me there were a number of issues that were unique to Dumbarton because they have such a high walking population," he said. "It's probably different from most from the other middle schools."

Parts connected with members of the BCPS facilities team, and ultimately had a pair of meetings when he made several suggestions. He said the main changes he saw at a meeting earlier this month were to the rear of the site.

Parts said that while the drop-off loop was still included, the new plans include a designated space for a possible building to house a new concession stand and restrooms for the Towson Rec Council.

Meanwhile, a group of Rodgers Forge residents has been working to improve the plans as well. At the Feb. 11 school board meeting, Rodgers Forge resident Mike Bayer read a portion of a letter from the Rodgers Forge Community Association that encourages the board to reconsider those design aspects.

Sirota, the association's president, said in an interview Friday that a group of eight design professionals, including landscape architects, planners, and architects, met in December to go over the plans and formulate suggestions to send to BCPS. Parts said he took part in some of the Rodgers Forge group's meetings, but has largely been working separately, they said.

"We were very clear in that there is a lot of excitement and positive feelings about the overall improvements to the school building," Sirota said. "There isn't any question of that. We're very grateful… that the county and state is willing to make these upgrades to the school. But we're also disappointed that there was no neighborhood or community input to the plans while they were being developed."

In the letter, which is dated Feb. 6, Sirota and the group of design professionals outlined concerns about the aesthetics of the large bus lot and the necessary retaining wall, the potential loss of street trees, and the loss of open space for the rear lot.

Sirota said in the letter that the retaining wall, "does not fit in with the character of Rodgers Forge, a National Register Historic District," and could be a falling hazard. The rear parking lot that will replace the front spaces will take away open space around the historic Dumbarton House, he said.

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