Renovation quandary strikes Reservoir Hill

October 20, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

I stand in Myra Arvin's living room and look down upon Druid Hill Park: the undulating green hills, trees abloom with autumn foliage, the glistening waters of the reservoir. It is a quiet vista, serene; an oasis in the middle of the concrete city.

"Breathtaking," I say. "Absolutely breathtaking."

But Ms. Arvin is in no mood to admire the view. Her family has lived in the Emersonian Apartments for seven years. Now, Ms. Arvin and her neighbors say the developer who is renovating three historic apartment buildings on Reservoir Hill is trying to force low-income residents to move, to make room eventually for more affluent tenants.

"It is not going to work," Ms. Arvin is saying passionately. "Nothing is going to force me out. They cannot disrespect me just because I am a working mother. I am an intelligent person who deserves to be treated with dignity."

The developer, Israel Roizman, of Norristown, Pa., is astonished by such vehemence. He says there is no secret agenda to force low-income residents to move. And he says the residents have been assured repeatedly that they will not be thrown into the streets.

"What is this all about? I have no idea what this is all about," he says, describing himself as frustrated. "I am trying to help the people there. We have tried to work with them. I don't know what else I can do [to prove sincerity] other than cut my wrists."

This is a story about trust and distrust, about communication and misunderstanding. This is a story about some people's dream of a renaissance in this city and about the complex web of emotions and history that make that renaissance so hard to achieve.

The three buildings that comprise the Renaissance Plaza Apartments complex -- The Emersonian, the Esplanade and Temple Gardens -- are elegant, though crumbling, old-world structures with marble columns and concrete balustrades. Many the apartments have beautiful hardwood floors, broad panel windows overlooking the park, and ornate marble mantels -- although those apartments have been subdivided many times over the years. An eclectic group live there, from affluent professionals to people receiving housing subsidies. The residents say they are fighting to preserve that mixture. The developer says he will.

Many residents do not believe him. "This is an old story," says Helen Dale, a psychologist; she and her husband have lived in Temple Gardens for 13 years. "They come into our neighborhood and say we are undesirable," she says. "They say they want the better kind of people. Well, our response is, the better kind of people live here now."

Two years ago, Mr. Roizman's company launched a $35.4 million renovation project using a mixture of federal and local funds. The plan is to modernize the three buildings in phases, beginning with the stately Esplanade in the 2500 block of Eutaw Place. While one building is being renovated, residents would be shifted to apartments in one of the other buildings. The entire project is slated for completion by 1996. Then, 218 of the 302 apartments in the restored buildings would be made available for low- to moderate-income residents. The rest would be rented at market rates.

But residents contend they are being left in the dark about how the work is progressing. They say maintenance has deteriorated to such a degree -- particularly at the Emersonian -- and management has become so rude, that some people fear they are being coerced to move out.

"We're getting a raw deal, we're being treated like low-life animals," says Roberta Miller, 57, a widow who has lived in the Emersonian for over a decade. Ms. Miller took me on a tour of the once-distinguished building. She showed me accumulated pigeon droppings on the front steps. We watched as custodians hauled garbage through the resident elevators, leaving behind a strong stench, because the freight elevators have remained broken for months. She says management provides more security for the renovation work site than for the people.

"But we are a community and we are going to fight to remain a community," she says. "I've been fighting all my life. I'm tired, but I'm not going to give up now."

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