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In Charles Village, picnic protesters turn “wasted land” into “public park”

"Occupiers" picnic in land cleared by Johns Hopkins for condos that were never built.

public park picnic

On Sunday, at the site of a failed condo project in Charles Village, a group declared it a “public park.”

Photo by: Fern Shen

A group of gently political Frisbee-throwers and picnickers occupied a vacant grassy Charles Village block Sunday – land bulldozed for a luxury condo project that never came to be – and simply claimed it for a few sunny hours, calling it “a public park.”

“It’s a statement against wasted development projects that have been parasites, useless condos that no one’s moving into,” said Bruce Willen, 30, a graphic designer who lives nearby in lower Charles Village. “We’re not carrying huge signs and trying to make a big thing out of it.”

Indeed, the only public explanation of the protest, at the intersection of St. Paul and 33rd streets, was a modest sign fastened to the black chain-link fence on the St. Paul Street side. It read “Public Park” in plain, black, very professional lettering. (Many of the organizers were, after all, graphic designers.)

Officially, this protest had no connection to the Occupy Baltimore group that has been demonstrating and camping out down at the Inner Harbor since Tuesday, explained Willen and his co-conspirator, fellow designer Nolen Strals.

 With some emails and this sign, guerrilla picnickers made a park out of a vacant lot intended for condos. (Photo by Fern Shen)

With some emails and this sign, guerrilla picnickers made a park out of a vacant lot intended for condos. (Photo by Fern Shen)

But they said they were trying to make a point by calling attention to prime urban land they feel is being wasted by city leaders. (Occupy Baltimore is raising similar issues.)

“It’s a symbol of the development policy in Baltimore,” said Strals, 33. “Developers and institutions sit on projects hoping for them to be worthwhile, meanwhile they were probably misguided projects in the first place.”

A “Big Black Hole”

As the two talked to reporters, a crowd that reached perhaps 30 people flopped on blankets spread on the grass enjoying sunny skies and unusually warm October temperatures in the low 80s. Frisbees flew, toddlers toddled, a couple of dogs bounded across the grass and the adults ate sandwiches, sipped San Pellegrino water and worked the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. Several kicked off their shoes. Bikes lay on the grass.

Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals explain why they gathered people at a vacant lot in Charles Village. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals explain why they gathered people at a vacant lot in Charles Village. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Most said they heard about the event via emails and many had no idea what was there before the big expanse of green grass.

“I moved here five or six years ago and I think it was like this then,” said Noah Bers, 27, who works in a restaurant in Little Italy and runs the Velocipede Bike Project. “See, you put a fence around a beautiful space like this and it becomes a black hole.”

Strals and Willen, who said they entered by untying a loosely-knotted chain securing that fence, knew the basic history of the parcel. “I believe,” Willen said, “these used to be rowhouses.”

Closest Thing to Fraternity Row

Before it was acquired by developer William Struever and demolished in 2006, the parcel was “the closest thing [Johns Hopkins University] had to a fraternity row,” as the student-written Johns Hopkins News-Letter described it. There was a 24-hour convenience store, row houses and two converted apartment buildings that housed Phi Kappa Alpha and Alpha Delta Phi.

Struever planned to build The Olmsted there, the last piece in his “Village Commons” project that includes Village Lofts across St. Paul St. (68  condos atop ground floor stores like Chipotle) and Charles Commons (student housing anchored by a Barnes & Noble bookstore).

The Olmsted was initially proposed as an $83 million, 12-floor building with 107 condominiums priced as high a $700,000, along with 15,000 square feet of stores and a parking garage. The city had subsidized the project with$20 million in tax increment financing and bonds. Amid objections from Hopkins, the project was scaled back to smaller market-rate and affordable  apartments.

But no iteration of the Olmsted ever materialized. When the housing market collapsed in 2008, Struever dropped for a time from the development scene, leaving behind a trail of unfinished projects and lawsuits over loan defaults.

When Hopkins purchased the 1.13 acre Olmsted site in 2009 for $12.5 million, officials there said they had no immediate construction plans for the parcel but “felt it was important to buy it when it was available.” Asked about eventual uses, officials mentioned surface parking, a parking garage and possibly someday classrooms or residential structures.

But so far, the land remains vacant.

“I Would So Use This”

Considering that the never-built Struever mixed-use project was named after Frederick Law Olmsted – who designed Central Park in New York and is considered the father of modern landscape architecture – it was perhaps apt that it actually briefly became a park Sunday. Several who were enjoying it said the area needs more public green space.

“I would so use this ‘park’ all the time if it were a real park,” Bers said. He said the Sculpture Garden at the nearby Baltimore Museum of Art is “ok if you want to sit by yourself and read a book” but feels private and doesn’t really invite large groups or frisbee-throwing. “Wyman Park, meanwhile is just full of dogshit,” he said. “It’s the dogs’ space. Which is fine for them but I don’t want to go there.”

With sunny skies and temperatures in the 80s, it was a beautiful day for a protest about public spaces. (Photo by Fern Shen)

It was a beautiful day for a protest about public spaces. Barnes & Noble on E. 33rd St. visible in background. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The current property owners, meanwhile hadn’t heard about the brief park-i-fication of their land. “I did not know about it,” said Dennis O’Shea, executive director of communications and public affairs for Johns Hopkins University, who declined to comment on what appeared to be, technically, trespassing by the group.

As for their plans for the property, that remains hazy. “Our intention is, at the appropriate time, to develop it in a way that benefits the university and the area,” he said.

What might that be? “There will certainly be parking, which the community needs, and there will certainly be some retail, which the community also needs,” he said. Beyond that, he said, there would be some university use such as classrooms, office space or dormitories.

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  • http://profiles.google.com/j.eric.lowe Eric Lowe

    Surface parking? They can’t be serious.

    • Anonymous

      Pave paradise!

  • http://citythatbreeds.com Evan

    Meanwhile there’s an enormous open space right across the street by the library that is frequently used by students for frisbee throwing etc. and the rest of the campus is mostly open green space, I like the message they’re getting across but no one should pretend that Hopkins students or area residents don’t have enough places to hang out and picinc.

    Meanwhile, rather than sit on the open parcel for the next X years waiting for development money, why not set up some tents (sanctioned) and tables and have small flea markets or something – student groups could sell some wares to non-students and so forth, so long as everyone cleans up after themselves it should be pretty easy to set up – plus it would at least put a little positive light on the folks who own the land?

  • http://citythatbreeds.com Evan

    Meanwhile there’s an enormous open space right across the street by the library that is frequently used by students for frisbee throwing etc. and the rest of the campus is mostly open green space, I like the message they’re getting across but no one should pretend that Hopkins students or area residents don’t have enough places to hang out and picinc.

    Meanwhile, rather than sit on the open parcel for the next X years waiting for development money, why not set up some tents (sanctioned) and tables and have small flea markets or something – student groups could sell some wares to non-students and so forth, so long as everyone cleans up after themselves it should be pretty easy to set up – plus it would at least put a little positive light on the folks who own the land?

  • Marc

    This perpetually-vacant lot shows us how dangerous mega-development projects really are. As described on Baltimore InnerSpace, these “scorched earth” speculation projects almost always result in the wholesale clearance of viable fine-grained neighborhoods to prepare for superblock projects that never come. I guess CV should be lucky it suffered a much smaller urban renewal scar than East Baltimore.

    A whole bunch of overlapping phenomena have squeezed out fine-grained, traditionally-scaled urban development in favor of megabuildings on megalots – tax policies (like TIF), zoning and planning strategies, economic development policies that push out small-time developers in favor of the big-time ones (who often fail spectacularly and line up for bailouts, which is partially fueling OWS and Tea Party anger), and twisted banking/financing strategies. The “big footprint” mega-building/mega-lot strategy of the urban renewal era is clearly still in force.

    But what disturbs me even more is JHU’s interim proposal for this lot. There used to be some valuable mixed-use rowhouse fabric there, and their suggestion for the lot is… more parking?! I agree with Eric – that is patently absurd! Look at the parking garage in the last picture – it’s almost empty! If Union doesn’t seem to be using it, why not rent it out to others? The city’s filled with underutilized parking lots/garages locked into serving specific institutions, with the result that most of the spaces sit empty most of the time.

    This area is saturated with parking – it doesn’t need any more. C’mon JHU, you should know better. If you want an Owings Mills-style campus and lifestyle, go to Owings Mills. I don’t want B’more to turn into Atlanta.

    The other proposal for the lot – ambiguous “green space” is also, IMO, ridiculous. This area is not only saturated with parking, but it’s also saturated with parkland. There’s Wyman Park, numerous pocket parks, and the beautiful grounds of JHU. This reflexive call for “green space” really speaks to our lack of confidence in urbanism – our only idea for replacing urban fabric is to insert simulacra of the wilderness (“green space” or “open space”) into the middle of the city. The goal should be to replace the lost urban fabric with good, fine-grained, small-scaled *new* urban fabric. But unless we want to wait around for megadevelopers to provide that (they never show up unless they’re guaranteed a handout), we should once again make it possible for small-scale independent builders to do what Baltimore was traditionally good at doing – building tight-knit, small-scale neighborhoods.

  • Bruce

    The idea behind “Public Park” is not to advocate that this specific space be turned into a permanent park, but to make use of an otherwise wasted space in the city. There are too many of these holes in Baltimore’s city fabric. I agree with Marc that these big development projects cause serious damage to the city when they fail. There are more than a few of these abandoned large-scale properties around the city—and the “Olmsted” lot is just one of the more frustrating examples (that just happens to be a particularly lovely lawn).

    “Public Park” was meant to activate (at least temporarily) a great unused space in the middle of a busy neighborhood, encourage for residents to enjoy a beautiful afternoon, and to call a bit of attention to the development priorities of the city and its institutions.

    • Marc

      Yeah, anything that calls attention to these tragically-wasted spaces is a very good thing, IMO! Hopefully we can someday reach a point where (1) these scars can be infilled with a useful, fine-grained building fabric again and (2) this kind of “scorched earth” development (to borrow Gerry’s phrase again) is supplanted by traditional development patterns.

      In the meantime, though, I say let CV’s residents keep using the lot for whatever purpose they want! No one’s vandalizing, no one’s littering – it’s absurd that an empty space like this has just sat there for a half-decade already, completely off limits and in cold-storage! Maybe it should even “revert to the public domain” – break it up into smaller parcels, and sell it to some people who can put it to immediate use!

  • Lisa Simeone

    Bravo!  We CVers have long lamented the waste of that space and wondered why somebody didn’t do something with it.  Now somebody has.

    I’m tied up at the occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., but as soon as I get back to Baltimore for a breather I’ll check out Occupy Baltimore (which I hear is going like gangbusters) and these smart folks at the new Public Park in Charles Village.  Onward!

    http://october2011.org/

  • Edward Ericson

    Wait. Hopkins bought an empty lot for $254 per square foot? (1.13 acres = 49,222 sf) How does that compare to the market price for finished space–A-office, laboratory, dorm, private residence–in that area?

    Might it be, even, 20 percent higher than the peak price, city-wide?
    http://www.loopnet.com/Baltimore_Maryland_Market-Trends

    Could that be a story?

  • http://twitter.com/snarkycomments snarkycomments

    Yay!  For years, I’ve been wanting to sneak by there in the dead of night and clip the hinges off the gates to that area but I lack the requisite courage.  Good for them.

    As a side note, what’s particularly egregious about this blocked off area is that when they installed that permanent fence it takes up more than half the width of the sidewalk on the St. Paul side of the block.   Since when does the city give away half a sidewalk for years in one of the few areas in Baltimore where people are actually out walking?

  • Tan

    Anything but a parking lot, please! And yet another brick apartment/dorm building would kind of be an eyesore but I could see the rationale behind it if the university really needs more housing in the future. But…how dreamy would a well-planned green space like this be? http://centerforperformingarts.net/img0212/proposed-garden-large.jpg ?

    I just went to “The Arts” Futures Seminar and some faculty were discussing the lack of facilities (offices, performance/practice/studio rooms) for Hopkins visual and performing arts programs, so maybe, just maybe…(with enough student & community support?) can Hopkins consider a mini amphitheater-studio-gardening-recreational space instead of more classrooms? 

    Throw in some student-made sculptures, host some outdoor concerts and festivals…it would really spice up the community/campus life image.  

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