Where the Sidewalk Ends
Residents Fear New BGE Substation Could Bring Industrial Blight to Their Neighborhood
At the corner of Paca and Monument streets in Seton Hill, blank tan walls rise from the sidewalk like a fortress. Weeds sprout from around the base of the walls and even between some of the bricks in the facade. Black paint is peeling and chipping from the tall metal doors, which don't look like doors designed to welcome people in--rather, they look like they're designed to keep people out.
Karen French calls this ominous structure "the bunker." Residents of Seton Hill, who live in its shadow, say it creates a forbidding presence in what is otherwise a lively, green community.
"This fractious thing, this ugly thing, is a blight," says French, president of the Seton Hill Association. It's been in the neighborhood, an enclave of well-tended historic rowhouses--one of the earliest groups of intact rowhouses left in Baltimore, in fact--since the 1970s, when Baltimore Gas and Electric bought the parcel, put up the tall tan walls, and dubbed the site the Paca Street Power Station. The site laid unused for decades, but a couple of years ago BGE announced its plan to construct an electricity-generating substation there to accommodate what it says is the growing need for electricity on downtown's west side. On July 12, plans for the substation go before the Baltimore Planning Commission for final design approval before the project can go forward. French and other neighborhood residents plan to attend the meeting to speak against BGE's design--they say that if BGE is going to be allowed to put its electricity substation and an affiliated switching station in the midst of their neighborhood, the utility should at least be required to create a design that flows with the neighborhood's architecture and character.
"Our demand is, if you are going to build a substation here, you have to design it so that you still have high-quality development in the area," says resident Mico Milanovic, secretary of the Seton Hill Association and a resident of the neighborhood since 2003. "Design it so it doesn't put people off because it's scary-looking or deserted[-looking]. That would require the substation to have height variation, have it enclosed, have it look like a building, or plan it in such a way as to have other development in the airspace above it, so you could have offices there."
When BGE first announced that it wanted to construct its substation at the Paca Street site, residents were alarmed and geared up to fight the plant's construction altogether ("Powering Up for a Fight," Mobtown Beat, March 29, 2006). Over time it became clear to the community that it would not succeed in keeping the substation from being built, and in February 2006, residents received letters from then-City Council President Sheila Dixon informing them that the community was "integral to the decision making process" and that she requested that BGE "work closely with Seton Hill to design an exterior fašade . . . that will be aesthetically pleasing and acceptable to the neighborhood." In addition, she said she had asked the utility to make landscaping, lighting, security, and maintenance improvements to the Paca Street Power Station.
According to French and Milanovic, BGE held a few meetings with residents and asked for their input, but it did not come up with an aesthetically pleasing design that neighbors found acceptable--nor, they say, did the company make improvements to the lighting, landscaping, or security around the perimeter of the Paca Street Power Station.
"Weeds, drug use, graffiti, prostitution, break-ins because of bad security," French lists as among the problems residents have encountered around the site. "They have told us they would have 24-hour guards during this project, but there hasn't been anything."
During a recent visit to the site, tall grass was growing at the entrance to the station, graffiti marred one of the metal doors, and there was no special lighting or security visible. The only signs that the Paca Street site was in use at all were the signs posted up on the walls announcing the July 12 Planning Commission meeting.
French and Milanovic say the company has done little to convince the community that it would create an appealing design--in fact, French says, the last designs she saw were not much different from what's there now. According to a computer rendering BGE showed the Seton Hill Association, the wall would remain intact but would be modified with decorative archways and metalwork.
According to Gary Cole, deputy director of the Baltimore Planning Department, the plan for the site "calls for replacing portions of the wall that are in pretty bad shape and adding some additional walls and fencing and metal panels, providing additional landscaping, street trees, additional lighting."
Cole did hear from the Seton Hill Association with concerns about BGE's designs but says most of the disagreements "appear to be, in my opinion, minor in nature.
"They deal with lighting fixtures, paving, specific types of plants for landscaping," he says. "For me, one type of plant species vs. another--that's minor. These are the types of things we will be looking at [on July 12], these are the types of things that will be presented. That is the whole purpose of the Planning Commission meeting."
Cole says residents will be welcome to speak at the meeting, and the community's concerns will be taken into consideration, "if it makes sense." BGE's facility design must be compatible with the urban-renewal plan for the area, which for Seton Hill is the Orchard-Biddle Urban Renewal Plan. If it were not, he says, it would not be approved for construction.
But Milanovic points out that the Orchard-Biddle plan was supposed to be about keeping industrial blight out of the area, not inviting it in; he notes that the neighborhood is a residential area and, therefore, a power plant substation does not belong.
"This little neighborhood has a lot of really great cultural and historical things to offer the city, to add to the cultural and heritage tourism, which the city is trying to build on," he says. "We're trying to get people to renovate and preserve these houses, we are trying to link Seton Hill to other historic neighborhoods. And we think this carelessly designed substation is going to endanger our efforts. It's going to be a barrier between us and the other neighborhoods."
BGE spokeswoman Linda Foy says that "the actual properties in question are not in the historic district," and points out that BGE has owned the Paca Street property for 30 years and that it was bought specifically with the intention of using it to support future electricity-generation needs. Foy says BGE has been meeting with the community since it began planning the substation.
"And we are willing to continue to meet with them," she says. "We are committed to working with the community . . . but we also have to balance the community's concern with our commitment to serve our customers. And in this case, that commitment requires that we add capacity to accommodate growth in that area."
The Seton Hill Association plans to bring as many residents as it can to the July 12 Planning Commission meeting to request that the city send BGE's facility design back to the drawing board. Best-case scenario, French says, is the Planning Commission demands that the company go back and rethink the substation so that it's less obtrusive and disruptive to the neighborhood--even better, she says, would be if BGE is required to offer some kind of "compensatory thing" for the neighborhood, such as donated historic street lighting. Worst-case scenario, she says, is the Planning Commission gives BGE the green light for its design plan and Seton Hill will be stuck with "the bunker." But instead of just being an ugly but benign wall, there also will be a humming, buzzing substation behind it. And as French points out in discussing her concerns about how that will impact the neighborhood, "nobody wants to buy a house that's right across the street from a power plant."
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