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Business & Developmentby Fern Shen11:32 amOct 10, 20110

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.

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

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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