Partners' plan to make haven for artists foiled

April 22, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

At the dawn of the 1980s, Harlan K. Zinn and Clyde H. Dorsett wanted to get in on the Baltimore housing renaissance with a plan to turn a string of tumbledown row houses in an alley near Church Hospital into housing and a park for local artists.

Nothing on Spring Street has gone right for the partners since.

"The entire situation has been an incredible disaster," said Mr. Zinn in one of the dozens of letters he has written to Baltimore bureaucrats in the last decade.

First, the city dismissed their proposal, calling it "too visionary" while denying access to low-cost government loans Mr. Zinn and Mr. Dorsett needed to rehabilitate six houses numbered 14-24 Spring Street between Baltimore and Lombard streets.

Unable to finance the project privately, the partners put a fence around the property, paid off their loans while paying taxes on the vacant buildings, and waited.

"We were hoping the economy would shift," said Mr. Zinn, a psychologist.

Instead, the ground beneath the houses shifted. On Oct. 22, 1987, an underground gas explosion brought down two of the buildings. After the fire department condemned the two collapsed buildings, a city inspector decided that those adjoining were also unsafe and ordered all of the properties razed at the owners' expense.

A few days later, without the knowledge or approval of Mr. Zinn or Mr. Dorsett, the buildings came down. The partners were informed of the action by a letter that arrived a week later. "You can imagine our shock, concern and despair to be notified, considerably after the fact, that property we owned was destroyed," Mr. Zinn said in a letter to a former city housing commissioner.

"They were down before we knew what was happening," said Mr. Dorsett, an architect who lives in Fells Point.

John Cole, the city inspector who ordered the demolition, said: "To let the others stand would have exposed the remaining buildings to collapse. No matter whose houses they were, they would've been knocked down."

Mr. Cole added that unless there is immediate danger, demolition is usually a course of last resort. "A building left standing has a chance to be rehabilitated, no matter how slim those chances are," he said. "You don't make any money for demolishing buildings."

He said the city tries to contact the owners by telephone before bulldozers and cranes are brought in to raze condemned properties, but owners can seldom be found on short notice. "We'd rather let them do it [either fence the property or raze it] than argue in court five years later when it's my word against theirs whether the buildings were unsafe or not," he said. "We strive to have the owners do it themselves instead of trying to collect the [demolition] lien in court."

Mr. Zinn and Mr. Dorsett have not been able to persuade an attorney to sue the city on their behalf. Lawyers cite too much red tape and eminent domain laws that give the city power to take property when necessary.

The next thing the city did was to cap the gas lines and water and sewer service to the lots as well as remove the utility meters. "We're obligated to make it safe," said Mr. Cole. "If we do it, we do the complete job."

For this complete job, the city's charge to Mr. Zinn and Mr. Dorsett is now somewhere between $18,000 and $20,000, with interest mounting.

Next month, the properties -- vacant lots, that is -- go up for public auction.

What particularly bothers Mr. Zinn is that the city owns dozens of buildings on and near Spring Street in far worse shape than the ones that were demolished, he said. "You can't tell me," said Mr. Zinn, pointing to photographs of city-owned wrecks, "that this structure is in better shape than mine.

In 1989, the housing department took the properties off of auction rolls to allow Mr. Zinn and Mr. Dorsett time to find a solution. The men wanted the city to share the cost of the disputed demolition, but the city refused.

The properties are now back on the auction rolls with the city telling the owners the liens and demolition charges will be absolved if the deeds are turned back to the city. Mr. Zinn says he isn't interested in giving away what he paid for.

"We have lost everything on this project. We've lost $40,000 out of our own pockets, all cash. We have no buildings and no [property] of value and they're taking us up to the auction block."

Yet, he says, he and Mr. Dorsett still want to develop the land.

Mr. Zinn said, "We're willing to work with the city."

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