Developers back out of Koppers deal City, builders differ on cleanup costs for Southwest-area site

'We're not happy'

Neighbors are angry after years of waiting for housing project

March 24, 1998|By Alec Klein | Alec Klein,SUN STAFF

In a setback for urban renewal in the city, developers have pulled out of a multimillion-dollar project to build a middle-class residential community on one of the last large open parcels in Baltimore -- the ill-fated Koppers site, an abandoned heath in Pigtown.

The developers -- Ryland Group Inc. and Otis Warren-- had planned an $11.3 million community of 113 homes, each expected to sell for about $100,000 and provide a much needed boost for economically struggling Southwest Baltimore.

But the vacant site was filled with large slabs and pilings of subterranean concrete. The developers underestimated the cost of clearing the land, and the city declined to contribute an estimated $800,000 in addition to the $1 million it had spent to clean up the old industrial plant, according to Warren.

Now, conflicting accounts are emerging about what happened and who is to blame.

"The city has reneged on its promise to the developers to deliver the land buildable," said Joseph Brown Jr., a member of the board of directors of the Roundhouse Square Homeowners Association, who lives about 10 rowhouses from the Koppers site. "We were told this was going to be developed since 1989 with market-rate housing. At this point, there's nothing going on. We're not happy."

Ryland officials could not be reached for comment, but Warren said yesterday: "I don't want to put the city in the position where they're the bad guys. I just think the entire project required more than either one of us anticipated. My partner and I were not willing to go the extra distance in terms of making sure there was no problem with the land."

City housing officials said that they did not know why the developers had backed out of the deal, nor were they familiar with any additional costs associated with the site's cleanup.

"Here's why that doesn't make any sense -- we're giving the developers a clean site," said city housing department spokesman Zack Germroth.

The city, which is seeking new proposals from developers, said no additional cleanup costs will be involved. The plan still calls for middle income housing. Already, 12 parties have expressed interest in the property, city officials said. Proposals are due at noon April 24. "It's a temporary setback," Germroth said.

Even with the renewed city effort, a sense of bitterness prevails in a community that has been waiting for something to be done about the site since a fire ripped through the buildings of Koppers Co., a construction, chemical and engineering-products business, more than a decade ago.

Community leaders are concerned not only about another delay but also about the impact the vacant, city-owned, 8-acre site will have on their property values and the surrounding commercial district. They also had hoped the project would meet the need for housing in the area.

"It's a real blow, we desperately need new housing stock," said John H. Ott, executive director of the B & O Railroad Museum, which overlooks the site. "I think the city promised to remediate the property, but I don't think they had any idea what was in the ground."

Now all there is on the site is a chain-link fence and strewn litter, reminders of what could have been. At the corner of Ramsay and Poppleton streets, a blue sign with white lettering announces the arrival of "GARAGE TOWNHOMES."

"I feel bad and disappointed that we let the community down," Warren said, "but in the business world, you have to know when to hold and know when to fold."

Pub Date: 3/24/98

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