Razing building raises question

Company that hired city official would gain by demolition

January 29, 2000|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

At a time when Baltimore's director of development was simultaneously working as a manager of a development company, her agency asked for $310,000 in city funds to help one of the company's housing projects.

The Department of Housing and Community Development was proposing to demolish a blighted building at 903 Druid Park Lake Drive and replace it with a park.

Pennrose Properties Inc. asked the city to do this to help attract tenants to a 55-unit apartment building it is renovating next door.

Catherine Fennell, who until yesterday was the development director for the housing department, said she had nothing to do with the funds request Jan. 5. She said removing the vacant building would help the entire community.

But an official in the city comptroller's office, Anthony J. Ambridge, questioned the legality of the deal, and the housing department withdrew the request. Ambridge said this week that the request created the appearance of a conflict of interest, because the Pennrose project would benefit from the demolition.

Fennell was approached by Pennrose about a job in November and went on its payroll as a full-time employee Jan. 1. Her dual employment was approved by city officials, but she agreed to end her city role effective yesterday after an article Sunday in The Sun raised ethical questions about it.

Fennell and city officials have defended the arrangement by saying she was helping to keep development projects moving during the first months of Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration. They say she has been careful to keep her city and company business separate.

But the episode with the proposed demolition shows how difficult it would be to maintain such a separation. Her company asked the city for the demolition money through a city memo that has her initials at the bottom.

Pennrose Properties is also receiving $1.9 million from the city to renovate the Riviera apartments at 901 Druid Park Lake Drive. And the Philadelphia-based development company is competing with another firm for the approval of Fennell's department to transform the city-owned Bromo Seltzer office tower at 15 S. Eutaw St. into a residential high-rise.

"I have done nothing wrong," said Fennell. "All I've done is try to help the city. That [demolition proposal] is something that was going on for a long time, well over a year. It wouldn't make any sense to put all this money into the neighborhood and have that blighted building there."

The two buildings at the center of the debate stand like twins overlooking Druid Lake.

Built in 1914 with elaborate beaux arts and Renaissance Revival details, 901 Druid Park Lake Drive was once one of the most exclusive apartment buildings in the city, until it fell into decay and neglect more than a decade ago.

In May 1998, Pennrose Properties, the largest developer of affordable housing in Pennsylvania, was chosen over three competitors as the winner of of development rights to renovate the building into the 55-unit, $8.2 million Riviera apartment complex.

Less than five feet to the west of this complex is the similar-looking, eight-story apartment building at 903 Druid Park Lake Drive.

This building, with its shattered windows and door hanging loose, has been vacant at least since January 1997, when the city gave its owners a violation notice. The property was weedy, strewn with trash and open to drug addicts and homeless people, according to the violation notice and city officials.

City housing officials have been talking about tearing down this building at least since early 1998, said Zack Germroth, a Housing Department spokesman.

Ambridge, city real estate officer, said he began asking questions about the demolition proposal when he saw it on the agenda for the Jan. 5 Board of Estimates meeting. The board, which includes the mayor and city comptroller, approves all major city contracts.

Ambridge said he became concerned when he learned that the city did not have legal title to 903 Druid Lake Park Drive, either through condemnation or eminent domain proceedings.

"You can't just go out and arbitrarily tear down a building," said Ambridge. "I asked if it had been condemned. The answer was no. It hadn't been condemned."

Ambridge said that when he called acting city Housing Commissioner M. J. "Jay" Brodie to ask about the item a few days before the board meeting, Brodie told him he couldn't answer the questions because it was "Caskey's deal" and Caskey was not available. Fennell went by the name Catherine Caskey before her marriage in 1998.

As a result, Ambridge said, action on the proposal was deferred by mutual agreement and the matter did not appear before the Board of Estimates on Jan. 5.

Ambridge said yesterday that Fennell's dual employment created the appearance of a conflict of interest. "It's just not appropriate," he said. "It's hard to serve two masters."

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