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Mobtown Beat

Lost in the Fields

Loyola's Plan for Woods Draws Mixed Reaction

By Michael Anft | Posted 2/21/2001

Two years ago, Loyola College outlined plans for an athletic complex on 51 acres of the "Woodberry Woods," as some North Baltimore residents call the approximately 150 undeveloped and largely forested acres that line a stretch of the west bank of the Jones Falls. The plan raised hackles among environmentalists and activists in the surrounding neighborhoods of South Woodberry, Parkhill/Edgegreen, and the tree-shrouded seven-house outpost known as "Dogpatch," but with support from the city it has moved forward.

Last month, Loyola returned to residents with an expanded plan for its "Field of Dreams" complex that would take up an additional 17 acres of woodland. Usually, such a late-in-the-game change would prompt an outcry from the proposed development's nearest neighbors. But while a dozen or so activists who have long opposed any development of the woods eyed the expansion suspiciously, the response from the larger community has been muted. Since unveiling the proposal, the private college has won over its share of supporters, including some of the area's most vocal environmental defenders.

The new plan, which the college unveiled to residents at a Jan. 24 community meeting, moves a proposed soccer and lacrosse stadium from a treeless site that includes part of the former Woodberry Landfill to a partially wooded parcel to the southwest. Loyola officials say they are working to preserve as much old-growth forest as possible. But college spokesperson Mark Kelly says the instability of the ground on and near the former landfill makes building the stadium there impossible. The college also wants to add a second access road to accommodate the comings and goings of up to 6,000 spectators.

Those fighting the project have held fast in their belief that the rolling, wooded hills--one of the last large city-owned parcels of green space not located in a park, and home to old stands of oaks, sycamores, and tulip poplars--should remain untouched. "For the longest time, the city and everyone else has ignored [the woods]," says Jan Danforth, a Woodberry resident and co-founder of the Urban Forest Initiative, a group opposing the Loyola plan. "Now, all of a sudden, there's this interest in development."

But the plan's opponents haven't been able to present a unified front. Others concerned with the woods surrounding the landfill and the Jones Falls view Loyola's involvement in the site as a benefit. Michael Beer, co-founder and co-chairperson of the Jones Falls Watershed Association, says the college may be able to pick up the ecological slack from the city, the landfill site's current owner.

"Loyola's plans include quite a bit of improvement for runoff into the stream," says Beer, who notes a planned detention pond for runoff near the falls. Currently, rainwater filtered through the landfill leaches into the stream, he says. "The city wasn't in a good financial situation to make the necessary improvements to help the woods, but Loyola was." As a result, Beer says, his group voted in April 1999 to back the "Field of Dreams" project.

While there are "no written guarantees" between Loyola and pro-ecology groups regarding use of the site, Beer says, he's been encouraged by "ongoing discussion" between the two sides. He adds that dissent among environmental groups hasn't been acrimonious.

Danforth admits to some "fragmentation" within her group and among her neighbors in lower Woodberry. "Some people don't think we can fight this," she says. "They want to balance the development with the green space. Others of us don't think that's possible." Danforth, who regularly leads walks through the woods, notes that 61/2 acres of the woods were already lost when the city began building the new Northern District police station in 1999, and a few others were damaged when then-Children's Hospital (now part of Sinai Hospital) cleared land for a stormwater-management system.

One group that has been working with the Urban Forest Initiative is the Baltimore chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which has collaborated with Danforth on kick-starting a community planning process. ACORN has also led protests against the college's plans, and a pair of sympathizers recently hung a banner across the Cold Spring Lane bridge over the Jones Falls Expressway carrying the message no to loyola. But ACORN organizer Mitch Klein says the opponents have had a hard time convincing the larger community that "institutions such as Loyola should do more than pay lip service to communities. . . . It's hard to get people in Baltimore concerned about the environment when there's a crack dealer in front of their house."

For Loyola, the Woodberry site represents a chance to develop an athletic site away from its cramped North Charles Street campus and showcase its often nationally ranked men's and women's lacrosse and soccer programs. Along with the 6,000-seat stadium, the school's proposal includes practice fields and up to 675 parking spaces. Loyola officials continue to negotiate to buy property from the city and Sinai Hospital, upon which the college wants to build a road that would connect the athletic complex to Greenspring Avenue (following the route of an existing unpaved path); Loyola had already proposed a road linking the facility to Cold Spring Lane.

By doubling its stadium capacity from the 3,000-seat Curley Field on campus, Kelly says, Loyola could compete for National Collegiate Athletic Association playoff games in soccer and lacrosse and reap the attendant revenues. The college also is in dire need of practice space, he says, adding that Loyola teams now must frequently work out at the nearby College of Notre Dame and St. Mary's Seminary on Roland Avenue.

The Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development agency, began talks with Loyola officials in late 1998 after the college announced it needed land to build a "forum" larger than Curley Field. The city's planning department has also come out in favor of Loyola's proposed use of the Woodberry site, the home of a city dump that closed in the '80s.

Kelly says the college will not buy the properties until it reaches an agreement with dissenting activists and the site's would-be neighbors. "We're waiting for feedback from them," he says. "We like the plan we put forth [at the Jan. 24 meeting], but we're open to negotiations."

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