Planned razing worries renters

Balto. County seeks to demolish 800 units to renew Essex area

June 01, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

With heart problems and diabetes, Paul Leucht has been looking for steady work since the late 1980s when the recession killed his printing business on Long Island.

In 1989, he packed his wife and two sons in a car and headed south.

The family ended up at The Villages of Tall Trees, a sprawling, gritty apartment complex in Essex. Now their home for the past two years is to be demolished as part of a $12 million revitalization effort by Baltimore County.

Leucht and other tenants say the plan has them wondering how long they will have roofs over their heads and where they will go next.

"These buildings are still in pretty good shape. It doesn't make sense to tear them down," said Leucht, 45, who survives on state disability payments and his wife's salary as a sales clerk at a discount store.

Baltimore County officials announced plans this spring to buy and demolish the 800 apartments at Tall Trees and turn the 53-acre site into a park, part of an effort to revitalize the Essex-Middle River area by demolishing aging apartment complexes and building upscale homes.

County officials say the Tall Trees project, which will take at least two years, is intended to move the complex's 2,500 residents to safer areas. Police responded to 4,894 calls at Tall Trees last year, a high rate in the county for a community its size. Officers were repeatedly called to the two-story brick complex for fights, drug activity and domestic disputes.

"We're looking forward to moving these people into safer communities, and we're confident that they will stay safer for years to come," said Mary Harvey, who is working with tenants and landlords as a coordinator for the Baltimore County Community Conservation Office.

Baltimore County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat whose district includes Tall Trees, said, "It's just been a problem area, with the police responses and everything else, and this project is something that in the long run is going to help that whole Middle River area."

Gardina said the project is part of a revitalization package for Middle River that includes the recent demolition of the aging 1,140-unit Riverdale apartment complex, the approval of a $5.4 million streetscaping project for Eastern Boulevard and the construction of Hopewell Pointe, a $34 million development of upscale homes, a restaurant and marina.

Gardina said county officials tried about two years ago to persuade at least two developers to buy and manage Tall Trees, now owned by 38 landlords. The developers balked because of the cost of renovating the buildings, which were built just after World War II, Gardina said.

"The only thing to do is eliminate Tall Trees from the landscape of Middle River," Gardina said.

Defenders of complex

Many Tall Trees tenants and landlords disagree.

They say that county officials have underestimated the costs of the project and exaggerated the community's problems, particularly its crime rate. Tall Trees has its problems, they say, but isn't as bad as some make it sound.

Some tenants have stayed because it is all they can afford, and others have lived there for decades, holding jobs and raising families, they say.

"What they're counting with the police calls is all the traffic stops," said Patricia Arnold, who has lived in Tall Trees for 36 years and raised three children there.

Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman, said traffic stops are always included in such counts because many of them involve other offenses, such as drug or prostitution arrests.

"There was no attempt or desire to inflate the figures," Toohey said.

John Lake, a 45-year-old building contractor, said the county will need more than $12 million to pay him and other landlords fair market value for their buildings.

He had hoped to finance his retirement with the $2,600 a month in rents he collects from the eight-unit apartment building he purchased at Tall Trees in 1983.

He has invested about $100,000 over the years in labor and materials and is skeptical about getting that amount from the sale, particularly after taxes, he said.

"It just makes me sick to think about it," he said.

Tenants worry about whether they will be able to find rents as low as those at Tall Trees.

Tall Trees rents range from about $275 a month for efficiencies to $525 for two-bedroom units, Harvey said.

The Leuchts, who pay $425 a month for two bedrooms, said the rent and location will be hard to match.

"Everything is nearby here. There's two bus lines and three supermarkets within walking distance," said Leucht, who, with his wife, Beth, recently bought a car.

Easing the transition

County officials said Tall Trees residents will get help from county social workers and housing coordinators, who also helped tenants find homes in 1996 and 1997 when other apartment complexes -- Savoy East, Chesapeake Village, Tidewater Village and Riverdale -- were bought and demolished.

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