Owners lost control of job Inexperience: It cost $1 million to turn six rowhouses into 12 apartments, but nobody is happy with results

Ayo Banjo

December 14, 1997|By Ronnie Greene and John B. O'Donnell | Ronnie Greene and John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF

The tavern owner waves his hands in the air, trying to grasp how so much money could vanish so quickly.

"One hundred thousand dollars toward that," Ayo Banjo gestures. "One hundred thousand dollars toward that. One hundred thousand dollars toward that.

"It wasn't enough money."

Among Baltimore's high-dollar rehabs, the six rowhouses on North Mount and Mosher streets stand as a model of inefficiency. Even with a $1 million budget, mostly from public sources, few people are happy.

"We call it the Big White Elephant," said Ayo's wife, Sineta.

The landlords say they lost money. The contractor sued for breach of contract. And for tenants, the rent went up. "They want to go up $50 to $300 a month," said one, Calena Highsmith. "It's not worth it."

The Banjos bought the houses four years ago with hopes of opening another tavern. But their plan fizzled amid community opposition, so they tried to salvage their investment by turning the brick and Formstone buildings into 12 apartments.

The city was interested, providing more than $900,000 through its housing agency and Community Development Financing Corp.

But the Banjos, inexperienced in construction, say they lost control amid a sea of consultants, contractors and city officials. Today the city's Banjo file, several feet thick, is stuffed with memos wrangling over fees and change orders.

"The CDFC controls everything," Ayo Banjo said. "Whatever they told me to do, I did. I'm just there as a rubber stamp. I'm powerless."

At City Hall, the costs raised eyebrows, but not enough to stop the money. Not all went to construction - some was eaten up retiring an old Banjo mortgage, and thousands went to consultants. In all, contractor BoTech Inc.'s construction bill totaled more than $560,000, records show.

Wayne G. Norris, an inspector hired by The Sun, examined several apartments and estimated construction costs at $426,000. "Even assuming a margin of error of 10 percent and adjusting accordingly, my estimate still comes out several thousand dollars less," Norris wrote.

BoTech President Bob Oreamuno canceled a scheduled interview and did not reply to written questions. In papers filed with the city, BoTech said it performed "in an exemplary fashion." After suing Ayo Banjo Inc. for $37,000, BoTech won a court settlement.

Banjo, a Nigerian immigrant, said he wouldn't do it again.

"This is what I do," he said, sweeping an arm around his dimly lighted B.J.'s Lounge. "I ended up paying $12,000 out of my pocket. They have shattered my American dream."

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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