Residents Voice Hopes for Northwestern High Property

Attendees peruse maps of the Northwestern High School school site. (Susan C. Ingram)

The Baltimore City Department of Planning held a meeting Monday evening at Northwestern High to gather  community input on the future of the 51-year-old school that closed last month as part of a massive 10-year, $1 billion  renovation and reorganization  of city schools known as the 21st Century Schools Building Plan. The city school board voted in January to surplus the building to the City of  Baltimore by 2019. Twenty- five other schools are also slated for closure.

“A lot of the people affected live and work in the neighborhood. Whatever decision ultimately gets made hopefully promotes stability,” said Howard Libit, executive director of Baltimore Jewish Council. “The one thing I hear is people, at least, want to see some amount of open recreational space preserved. There aren’t enough recreational fields and playgrounds around Northwest Baltimore.”

Steve Ward of Grove Park graduated from Northwestern in 1974. He is holding out hope that the school can reopen. “I would like to see students, possibly, still being a part of Northwestern, that there is still a chance for Northwestern to be a school,” he said.

But with the school already shuttered, its students slated to attend Forest Park and the school board voting to surplus the school (for reasons including reduced enrollment and soaring maintenance costs), that scenario seems unlikely.

However, educational uses for the existing structure, or for new construction, was certainly on the minds of some, including a vocational training or a community education center, while others want single- family or senior housing, a cultural/arts or recreation center, a pool, athletic fields and green space.

“Tonight, we’re going to provide some information and start what’s going to be a multistage community dialog about the reuse of this property here at Northwestern High School,” said Tom Stosur, director of the city Department of Planning. “It’s been a long-revered institution in the community, and we certainly want to respect that history as well as have as much opportunity for positive impact of the future use of this property as possible.”

Before the meeting adjourned to breakout sessions, Sara Paranilam, of the city’s Comprehensive Planning Division, said that “a lease or sale of the site is desirable.” The structure might be purchased for demolition and new construction, as a developer could deem projected annual maintenance and repair costs of $740,000, utility costs of $380,000 and capital improvement costs in the tens of millions, prohibitive for reuse of the building.

Community members arriving at Northwestern High School for input meeting. (Susan Ingram)

The 16.2-acre site is zoned R-9 residential, which is in keeping with much of the zoning along Park Heights Avenue. R-9 allows for multifamily dwellings, including single-family, row-home and multifamily developments with “significant front-yard open space,” according to the city zoning code.

Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) grew up two blocks from Northwestern. He’s heard from constituents about housing, which he said would help city tax rolls.

“There is a great need for more single-family homes in the community. A lot of people are being forced to move into the county because we don’t have enough housing stock in the area.” Schleifer said. “This has the opportunity to take this 16-acre property [and] make it a great revenue generator for the city.”

Cheswolde Neighborhood Association president Nathan Willner wants “total community buy-in” for whatever proposal emerges. “This would be a perfect place for senior living — a whole village built for the seniors,” he said.

Matthew Minson lives in Hilltop. “I’d love to see something that’s going to bridge the communities, the Orthodox community and the African- American community, where there’s an opportunity for us to create a dialog to gain a better understanding of each other,” Minson said. “Possibly a senior facility or a vocational facility for young people.”

Morris and Doris Goldstein live a block from the school. The couple has definite ideas for the site but “no Section 8 housing,” Morris said. “I was thinking it would be good for the JCC to move here, because their building is really old.”

“I’d like to see something open, maybe a park, keep the fields and the walking track,” Doris said. “Something for seniors, not housing, but a place for activities. Or an indoor swimming pool.”

District 41 State Sen. Nathaniel T. Oaks and Delegate Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, both Democrats, said community input in the building-surplus process is key.

“Our goal, and I think the community’s goal, is to have future use here that is compatible and acceptable for all the neighbors. For the Jewish community, African-American community and Hispanic community,” Rosenberg said.

“We have a vested interest,” Oaks said. “We were very instrumental in making sure that the track and outside exercise facility were being utilized by the community as well as the school. We want that same kind of thing to take place in the use of the facility.”

Raizel Urszuy, from Cross Country and a 40-year resident, is part of the home-schooling and Jewish communities and business manager for a family plumbing company. She would like to see Northwestern redeveloped as a trade school for state-of-the-art skilled-crafts training. She also wants more inter-community activities for Park Heights’ diverse population.

“Our communities naturally drift to their own, and we need space for activities where our communities will come together for fun and connection,” she said. “You have to find something that is possible, that can powerfully build community. We desperately need that in Baltimore.”

Valerie and Norman Dubin from Glen are hoping for an arts and cultural facility for classes, community theater and senior activities. Valerie knows the school well, because she taught ESOL there from 1992 to 1999.

Valerie and Norman Dubin offer their input on the school site. (Susan C. Ingram)

“We have no park here, kids are playing baseball in the street,” Valerie said. “Other areas of the city have places like the Creative Alliance. And while we do have the JCC and the Myerberg, both of those are very expensive for many people.”

“My concern is that real estate developers are going to buy it up, it’s going to have high-density housing, and traffic is going to increase. Money talks,” Norman said.

Joyce J. Smith, secretary of the Howard Park Community Association, like others at the meeting was thinking of job training for teens.

“I would like to see a vocational rehabilitation center,” she said, “where young people can learn skills if they don’t want to go to college. If you catch them early, they have a chance to come out and become productive citizens.”