The Villages of Tall Trees, a World War II-era apartment complex in Essex that in recent years has deteriorated into a bazaar of criminal enterprise and violence, would be transformed into a community of condominiums under an ambitious plan proposed by private investors to county leaders.
A preliminary blueprint, discussed in several meetings, calls for developers to convert 80 of the 100 buildings into affordable three-bedroom condos, eventually eliminate hundreds of low-income rental units and bring stability to an area once recognized as the worst crime zone in Baltimore county.
"The county executive and council are excited to look at the possibility of creating more home ownership with help from the private sector," said Michael Davis, spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who has made east-side revitalization a top priority.
Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a 5th District Democrat, said that while an unspecified amount of private money will be used in the Tall Trees project, state or federal funds could be made available to prospective owners.
He and other officials want to make certain the new Tall Trees condos will be occupied by the purchasers. Currently, the complex of 105 apartment buildings is owned by 40 landlords, none of whom live there.
"The last thing we want to create is a situation for speculators to come in and buy the condos and rent them back out, drawing the kind of landlord we are trying to eliminate -- ones who buy up property and let them go downhill," Gardina said.
With a business enterprise zone in North Point and Dundalk and signs of younger families buying shore property for homes, the county's future hinges on eradicating bleak pockets of poverty and crime in the eastern county, Ruppersberger has said.
Tall Trees, for example, is less than a block from the site of the proposed $34 million Hopewell Pointe, 221 single family homes and condominiums off Middle River. That development, also being created with private funds over the next five to 10 years, will feature an upscale restaurant, marina and docking piers for residents.
David P. Fields, director of the county Office of Community Conservation, said the concept of private funding for such redevelopment is "getting people to view the county's east side differently. Developers coming in with their own money triggers perhaps others to think about investing.
"It's perhaps a change in the area's image and quality of life we've been working so hard at," Field said.
Other troubled apartment complexes -- also centers of criminal activity -- have been targeted for demolition. Officials hope to help residents relocate and build single family homes or recreational areas where aging apartments once stood.
"A major goal is to reduce the density of the east side," said Gardina. "The entire county has more than 90,000 apartment units, places allowed to be built when there was little or no consideration for strategic and sound development."
Eradicating what officials see as decaying housing stock and centers for criminal activity has already begun.
More than 540 units at Riverdale Village on Eastern Boulevard in Middle River -- an eyesore for years -- will be demolished by winter's end, Fields said.
The property at Chesapeake Village, which has more than 250 units near Martin State Airport, is scheduled to be put up for bid in January, Fields said.
And, he added, more than 400 low-income units at Tidewater Village are slated for demolition in the next year, with the private owner investing up to $4 million in rehabilitation funds for the remaining 250 units.
Fields said concerns by Tidewater residents who wished to remain in their homes have been addressed. Some will be offered assistance with rent or moving expenses, Field said.
While many of the problem apartment complexes continue to decline, county officials have made an attempt to re-establish a degree of service and stability at Tall Trees.
"There have been some positive changes recently at Tall Trees," Davis said. "But there was a time when the majority of grand jury indictments were connected to the complex; it was the worst place in the county."
In one recent year, the Essex police precinct reported responding to more than 600 calls for service at Tall Trees -- including gang-related and domestic violence, prostitution and narcotics trafficking.
After a police crackdown and construction of a wrought-iron fence around the property to cut off escape routes of fleeing suspects, crime dropped 30 percent last year. The county also opened health offices, a computer lab, a day care center and tutorial programs.
"We also screen new tenants for criminal and credit background checks before renting to them," said Blanche Martin, president of the Tall Trees residents association.
The team of investors is led by Thomas Coulthard III, owner of a cemetery sales contracting firm and property management company in Baltimore.
Others involved in the proposal are Lee Dorman, a partner of Coulthard's and a local contractor; Daniel Galluso, an attorney and investment analyst; and Herbert H. Miller, a Towson lawyer.
Coulthard said that financing has not yet been made final but that an architect's rendering calls for creating four condominiums in the brick buildings, which currently hold eight apartments each.
"We can't do it with paint and powder," Coulthard said. "Once we reach a settlement with the county, we're planning to tear out walls, install new electrical and plumbing systems, build cathedral ceilings and kitchen cabinets."
The condominiums are expected to sell for about $55,000 to $60,000 each.
Pub Date: 11/14/96