Roland Water Tower park plans would cut off gateway to history, residents say

Published on: August 23, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: August 24, 2022 at 5:58 pm EDT

As a kid, Joanne Kent thought Hoes Heights was the country, remembering the North Baltimore community filled with grass, fruit trees and neighbors helping neighbors. Kent is a descendant of Grandison Hoe, the freedman and farmer who developed the land with his family in the late 19th century.

Kent cherishes that history and what the community was able to provide to African Americans who could not live in certain parts of Baltimore, including Roland Park.

“My ancestors worked very hard to allow Black professionals and Black veterans to have a safe place to live,” said Kent, 66.

For Kent and other longtime residents of Hoes Heights, the 148-foot tall Roland Water Tower that’s at the nexus of several neighborhoods — Hoes Heights, Hampden, Rolden and Roland Park — represents a gateway into their historically Black community. Now, some of those residents are concerned that a plan to transform the green space around the base of the recently stabilized water tower includes shutting down the site’s horseshoe-shaped road network to vehicular traffic. Neighborhood residents would no longer be able to access the water tower property by car from Evans Chapel Road or go on to Roland Avenue, a main byway. They would be able to access the property by foot.

“This design will permanently shut down the traffic circle that for over 100 years has provided safe passage into our beloved and historical Hoes Heights community,” a group of concerned residents and activists wrote in a July 14 email to Elizabeth Hughes, director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

Some in Hoes Heights feel that their views weren’t adequately reflected in the final design for the park.

“It’s such a rich history,” Kent said of Hoes Heights. “I feel like it’s my duty to assist in keeping the road open.”

Backers of the project said many residents who attended a recent public meeting “were excited and energized to see the plans for a park for people of all ages and a vibrant space for community activities.”

“The final park design does not include a road through the park,” the Friends of the Roland Water Tower said in a statement. The group added that a steering committee established to help preserve the structure and develop the park “took almost a year to listen to community concerns about traffic and to research if the road could be partially opened in the long term. However, they found no reasonable path forward to fund a safe, well-maintained road.”

Rich history

Hoes Heights borders Roland Park at Cold Spring Lane to the north and Hampden at 41st Street to the south. The community got its name from Grandison Hoe, a freed slave who operated a farm on the property, where his sons also built their homes, according to a neighborhood history the Maryland Center for History and Culture compiled.

A local sugar magnate tried repeatedly to buy the land, but the Hoe family declined. However, the Depression made family members sell land to pay delinquent taxes, and about 70 homes were later constructed, per the neighborhood history. Many of them were sold to Black World War II veterans, according to the history.

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Many residents of Hoes Heights held professions in Roland Park, a mostly white community that was a more well-to-do enclave.

“Regulated to a few close blocks, we were the cooks, housekeepers, nannies and chauffeurs, and did our very best to become the best neighbors and provide a safe and nurturing environment for our children in Hoes Heights,” resident Janis “Teri” Logan wrote in a testimonial collected by the Hoes Heights Action Committee, a group formed in response to efforts to close the water tower property’s roads.

She continued, “We all thrived despite knowing we could never buy into the mansions across the way, or cross the invisible but deadly lines that surrounded us at the south, east and west boundaries or our neighborhood. Aside from our precious Hoe Heights, Morgan Park and communities on the other side of Druid Hill Park, were the distances we had to travel, to see people the color of us.”

At the center of the debate is the city-owned octagonal tower, a brick and terra cotta landmark that was built in the early 20th century on Roland Avenue near University Parkway. The tower provided water for the community at first, and later the site served as a trolley/bus turnaround as well as a “peaceful haven” for Hoes Heights families, according to the July 14 email.

Then pieces of the tower started to break off. A gate was put up around the structure, and the city considered razing it. But former Baltimore City Council member Mary Pat Clarke successfully pushed to declare the tower a landmark and use demolition funds for restoration instead, according to a November 2021 Baltimore Fish Bowl article. The Maryland General Assembly and the Roland Park Community Foundation contributed funds, and the community last year celebrated the completion of a $1.5 million project to stabilize and restore the structure.

Plans for a community park were mentioned in the 2011 Greater Roland Park Master Plan. A 2019 agreement with the city authorized the foundation to move forward on plans to renovate the tower, develop a “pocket park” and maintain the grounds. A steering committee was formed to gather community input and recommend a design for the park, which is estimated to cost $450,000. The committee included representatives from nearby neighborhoods, including Roland Park, Hoes Heights and Rolden. Funding will come from a mix of private and public sources, according to the Roland Water Tower website, including private donors, grants and bond bills. Plans for the park include additional trees, a flex lawn, a path loop, a plaza, seating and chess tables.

Unknown Studio of Baltimore was hired by The Roland Park Community Foundation as the landscape architecture firm. The nonprofit foundation works to preserve and maintain green space in the community.

Julia Pierson, who represented Rolden on the steering committee, wrote in an email that volunteers did extensive outreach and research into design and costs over three years. She said the committee delayed plans after some residents voiced concerns last year about closing the roads.

“There were 4 community meetings held on site. In addition there were 3 zoom sessions for those preferring that option. There were 2 surveys, with 446 responses and 320 responses each. The surveys were broken down by neighborhood, as well as road usage prior to construction,” she wrote.

“Surveys were personally dropped to residents who preferred physical copies. There was an on-site box for surveys and suggestions. Surveys were also done by phone when requested.”

‘We weren’t really heard’

But Quianna Cooke is among the Hoes Heights residents who do not believe the survey results accurately reflect the views of her and her neighbors. She thinks a more thorough and intentional approach needs to take place.

“My concern is that we weren’t even really heard,” said Cooke, who has lived in Hoes Heights for more than five years and whose late husband lived there for decades before that.

Cooke, Logan and Kent are part of the Hoes Heights Action Committee, which is focusing on Hoes Heights’ history as it advocates to keep the roads open. The eight-member committee also includes Jennifer Jarvis, the president of Heathbrook’s community organization.

Last spring, the committee conducted its own door-to-door survey within the historic borders of Hoes Heights. They interviewed 75 neighbors out of 113 houses, asking residents whether they preferred “keeping open or closing road access to the Roland Park Water Tower?”

Eighty-six percent of those surveyed did not want to lose the road access, the group said. It says its findings were shared with the steering committee but seemed to be ignored.

Members of the Hoes Heights Action Committee were able to meet with the Maryland Historical Trust in July, according to Hana Morford, a community resident and action committee member. In that meeting, she said, the department indicated that it would be happy to look at a plan with a two-way roadway. Park designs have to be reviewed by the trust and the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP.

The Maryland Historical Trust said in an email Tuesday that it had received an easement alteration request form from the Baltimore City Department of General Services in July 2021. It included a proposed landscape plan for the water tower property that removed the existing roadway and replaced it with pedestrian pathways.

The trust said it denied the request form, urging the applicant to rework the design to be “more sensitive to the historic function and layout of the site.”

Unknown Studios submitted three designs to the trust in September 2021; only one included one-way road access between Roland Avenue and the homes along Evans Chapel. While the design without road access was most acceptable, the trust said, it was also noted that the design with road access could also be acceptable. The trust approved a design submitted by Unknown Studios in June 2022 that did not have road access, but it also indicated that if the city wanted to revise the design to include a paved road, the trust would work with the city or Unknown Studios on a new request.

Zoe Clarkwest, a Hoes Heights resident with a background in landscape architecture, served on the steering committee for the park.

Clarkwest said she originally voted in favor of a design that closed the roads, but she later changed her mind after listening to the concerns of some nearby residents. She said the process made her realize how systemic power structures were being reinforced.

“You can’t look at what we did and think that it’s not racist … we weren’t doing it with intent,” she said. “The people who already have power get to have their park while others experience the burden of inconvenience.”

Clarkwest said she shared her thoughts and concerns with the steering committee in an email, but that she received limited responses.

Mary Page Michel, president of the Roland Park Community Foundation, wrote in a statement that the nonprofit “convened leaders” from adjacent neighborhoods at the urging of the Friends of Roland Water Tower. Through community meetings and surveys, the foundation received feedback about how to improve the grounds around the tower, which already hosts community functions.

“This month alone there will be two outdoor concerts, a flea market, and three neighborhood group events next month,” she wrote. “We look to the City for the next steps in the revitalization of the space to decide ... which park design to build. We will take our lead from our elected officials and look forward to a new, vibrant, green space.”

In the meantime, one lane remains temporarily open, providing one-way access from Roland Avenue to Evans Chapel Road.

Meetings about traffic-calming measures for neighboring streets in the area have been discussed with District 14 Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who is also addressing community concerns about the park design. She said she and District 7 Councilman James Torrence are gathering information about road access and are going to conduct their own survey within the community.

Ramos said she appreciates the importance of preserving history, but that she’s not sure yet where the compromise lies.

“We can [preserve history] with a road. We can do it with a park. We’ll see,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comment from the Maryland Historical Trust