Big dreams amid blight

Harlem Park leaders, NationsBank envision area's transformation

`This is risky business'

July 04, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Amid trash heaps and midday 40-ounce-beer drinkers, NationsBank Vice President Maria Johnson stood in Harlem Park and outlined the bank's goal of converting 24 blocks of urban blight into suburbanlike homes, complete with cul-de-sacs, manicured lawns and tree-lined streets.

"This is no place I would send my child to play, but there is a percentage of the [suburban] population that we can bring back here," said Johnson, standing in a neighborhood that has lost 25 percent of its population since 1980. The area has an estimated 450 vacant structures. The city has demolished others, giving most blocks a gap-toothed appearance.

The bank, which has come under fire in recent years for not investing in urban areas, is trying to put a new face on its endeavors. Despite warnings from other cities to be leery of the bank, Baltimore officials and residents appear poised to be one of the beneficiaries.

Having committed $100 million in financing to the redevelopment of downtown's west side, NationsBank has teamed with the Harlem Park Revitalization Corp. to develop a five-year plan to demolish and replace about 800 homes with two 200-unit housing developments and a senior citizen complex.

Harlem Park officials envision the area -- situated between Franklin, Monroe and Carey streets and Lafayette Avenue -- as an enclave for middle-class and upwardly mobile professionals.

While officials have yet to determine the cost of the Harlem Park initiative, NationsBank will fund most of it through its 10-year, national $350 billion community development program, as a for-profit venture. "This is risky business," Johnson said. "But I am expected to pad all the coffers at the bank."

Jelili Ogundele, president of the Harlem Park Revitalization Corp., said he will seek limited financial support from the city to purchase some vacant buildings.

The area's three-story rowhouses, many boarded-up, will be replaced by 1,300-square-foot semi-detached units with front and back yards, more than 75 percent of which will be sold at market rate, with the remaining rented at market prices. The units are not intended as public or Section 8 housing, Johnson said.

"We need more homeownership," said Ogundele, noting that Harlem Park consists of 80 percent rental units.

Besides being envisioned as a bank moneymaker, the project will help the bank benefit from the federal Community Reinvestment Act. The law, which was recently challenged in Congress, rates banks on how well they serve low and moderate-income areas.

Guarded optimism

When local residents saw development plans last week, they expressed guarded optimism.

"They are building that here!" James Walker, 21, said as he looked up at the burned-out building in the 500 block of Mount St. "It's going to be hard."

The developments are part of a Harlem Park community master plan that community leaders, NationsBank and city planning officials released last month after a year of talks.

It calls for more open space, a grocery store, and greater police and fire protection.

With the agreement signed, bank officials are seeking city approval and starting to obtain property. NationsBank recently bought 70 properties at a tax auction, and Johnson is lobbying city officials to reduce the waiting time for the city to begin condemning a foreclosed property from six months to 60 days.

She appears to have an ally in 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who represents Harlem Park. "There are some properties I wish I could condemn in an hour," Stukes said. "But I know that is not the easiest thing to do."

Provi Sharp, a western district city neighborhood coordinator, has worked with NationsBank during the development stage. Sharp and city planning officials will propose legislation to the City Council in the fall that would amend Harlem Park's urban renewal plan.

The plan was adopted in 1961 to impose zoning and overall neighborhood standards. Although it has been amended several times since 1961, Stukes insisted the plan will not be changed again without "strong community support."

Phase I: Senior housing

Construction on the first phase of the project -- a four-story, 75-unit senior citizen independent living center at Fulton and Edmondson avenues -- could begin this fall, Johnson said. The city-owned lot is the former site of Edmondson Gardens, now a vacant lot with hip-high grass.

Developers believe the home will house seniors who fled Harlem Park in the 1970s but wish to return. Plans call for a restaurant and pharmacy on the first floor.

Phase II: Duplexes

The second phase of the project will target the 500 to 800 blocks of N. Mount St.

There, developers hope to scrap the 1950s concept of inner block parks. Created by urban renewal legislation, the parks replaced small alley houses on the inside of blocks.

But the concrete parks deteriorated, and their alleyway access made them a haven for drug dealing and garbage dumpers, Ogundele said.

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