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Red Maple Place is the wrong project for East Towson | COMMENTARY

Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on a 2.5 acre parcel of undeveloped land along East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson.
Red Maple Place, a 56-unit affordable housing building, is proposed to be built on a 2.5 acre parcel of undeveloped land along East Pennsylvania Avenue in Towson. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The tiny enclave of East Towson is home to 503 subsidized or Section 8 rental units. But Baltimore County officials want to add another 56-unit rent-controlled apartment building on the last remaining bit of open space in the historic Black village.

Red Maple Place, a Soviet-era style building, is planned for the only wooded parcel in the neighborhood, a 2.5-acre, sloping site. If built, the apartments will block sunlight to neighboring homes, brightly illuminate the night with light pollution and likely exacerbate existing flooding problems.

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The picturesque community is already boxed in by a large industrial complex on the east; an entertainment complex, government buildings, apartment towers and other commercial enterprises on the south and west; and Joppa Road, with its mishmash of small shops, high rise apartments and a regional mall, to the north.

Meanwhile, the small vernacular style homes in historic East Towson — many built by formerly enslaved Black people who were freed by the owner of nearby Hampton Plantation almost 200 years ago — have steadily been demolished in the name of “progress.”

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East Towson has increasingly been encircled by commercial structures and towering multi-family housing buildings and has been a dumping ground for noxious uses no other neighborhood would allow: a BGE substation, a half-built highway and other environmentally racist uses that were poorly conceived and badly designed.

Baltimore County has a long history of systemic inequity in East Towson. A 1964 Towson rehabilitation and redevelopment report, written and compiled at the request of former Baltimore County Executive Spiro Agnew, claimed that “socio-economic deficiencies are more obvious in East Towson” because of its “large number of low-income households … made up of Negro families whose members are unskilled.” Clearly, Baltimore County officials wanted to rid Towson of its problematic Black citizens.

One of the recommendations in this report was to split the neighborhood in two with a Towson bypass highway; another was to construct luxury high-rise apartments along Joppa Ridge. Agnew was not only a crook who excoriated anyone who dared to cross him as “nattering nabobs of negativism,” he actively encouraged racial disharmony.

Today, the majority of these recommendations have been realized, mostly at the expense of longtime residents of East Towson. The noose of development, commercialism and wrongheaded solutions to Towson’s traffic woes has slowly tightened around the residents over the years, reducing the once thriving self-sufficient village to a mere six blocks of homes.

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County government officials should not repeat the mistakes of the past; they must find the political will to do the right thing by the citizens of East Towson. A countywide plan should be designed to satisfy the ACLU’s and NAACP’s worthy demand for affordable housing in Baltimore County. The solution should not be to shoehorn this inappropriate, ill-conceived project into a stable community.

East Towson has already sacrificed most of its open space and has lost many of its homes and families due in part to callous landlords, lack of county services and developers seeking to maximize profit. What the neighborhood doesn’t need is another eyesore, more traffic and worsening flooding issues.

Public policy determines which people get to live in a good community with public services, good schools and little traffic versus those who must live in the shadow of power plants, encroaching commercial and industrial uses, flooding, bright lights and cut-through traffic. These policies can be either implicit or explicit but they are there just the same targeted at neighborhoods of people of color and their children who will inherit these problems.

It is up to County Executive Johnny Olszewski and his office of Ethics and Accountability to reexamine their choice of siting the oversize Red Maple Place in the tiny community. Otherwise, its deleterious effects on the fabric of East Towson will persist into future generations.

Nancy Worden Horst (nwhorst@gmail.com) is the former executive director of The Towson Partnership.

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