Neighbors Demand Voice in Parking Garage Design

by Alice Cherbonnier
     BACK IN 1990, Hampden and Wyman Park residents banded together to form The Coalition to Stop the Expansion of Maryland Casualty. They successfully blocked plans then for a parking garage on the company's lot at the corner of Keswick Road, and they thought the matter was settled.
     They were wrong. They're back in the game, fighting the same fight they thought they'd already won.
     Quite by chance, in early April a neighbor saw workmen drilling holes in the insurance company's parking lot. Inquiries were made, and it was learned that Zurich Insurance Company, the parent company of Maryland Casualty, planned to construct a five-story, six deck 1,078-car parking garage on their lot.
     The company's B-2 zoning would permit such a use. However, the usual procedure for a project of such magnitude calls for the assignment of a planner from the city to interface between the developer and the surrounding communities, to assure an opportunity for sharing views.
     No city planner was assigned for this project, at the specific request of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), whose role is to smooth the way for businesses to operate in the city. To induce the insurance company to remain at its current site, the City has offered it a $5 million tax PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) relief package.
     Though caught on short notice, the community responded to the plans immediately. Its representatives met with City Councilpersons on April 4 and found sympathetic ears. Sheila Dixon and Kieffer Mitchell of the 4th District and Rikki Spector of the 5th District expressed concern. A hearing on the matter was held on Thursday, April 23, and the following day Ms. Dixon called the Department of Public Works to put a hold on Zurich's applied-for permit to clear the land for construction.
     Blaine A. Hoffman, an attorney who resides in the 3600 block of Chestnut Avenue, has been a leader of the community's efforts to bring about a more inclusive planning process for the garage. "They already have enough parking," he said of the company. "They just want to consolidate their satellite lots." Two lots are in Remington, and another is the lower lot of the The Rotunda, which faces on West 38th Street. The fate of these lots, once vacated, also concerns residents. In particular, they fear that the Rotunda lot will be sold of leased to a fast-food chain.
     The community activists got a big boost on April 30 at a Planning Commission hearing. The commissioners unanimously accepted a proposal that would require a public hearing and a design review process for any development project proposed by a company employing 500 or more persons.
     Though feeling more hopeful, Hoffman considers these procedural steps to be a "stay of execution." "We realize Zurich is a large concern," he says. "They're going to get their garage."
     But at least by the time the garage is finally built it will more likely be designed in a way that does not adversely impact the community as much as it could have if it had been constructed without community input.
     "Imagine one thousand, seventy-eight cars exiting every night with their headlights into someone's window," he suggested. "We're homeowners, we pay taxes. Zurich is only operating about ten hours a day, five days a week. We would have to live with this [garage] 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We should have a say in how it's built and landscaped."
     He downplayed arguments that city businesses should be allowed to develop without community input because otherwise they might leave the city. "They wouldn't be able to build a garage like this in Zurich {Switzerland]," he said. "They'd never be allowed to do it this way over there. They wouldn't even try."
      Hoffman noted how the relationship between Maryland Casualty and the community has changed. When the company-familiarly called "The Caz"- built what is now known as The Rotunda in 1920, on the company was called "Hampden Hall" because it employed so many recent high school graduates from the community. Today, Hoffman believes only about 200 of the 1,600 employees at the company's newer building adjacent to The Rotunda are city residents, and few are from Hampden.
     That's one of the reasons parking is now so important to the company. At one time, not so long ago, the majority of Maryland Casualty employees could easily have walked to work.

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This story was published on May 6, 1998.