Baltimore land swap proposal irks residents of Washington Hill

Hopkins wants to use housing project site for clinic, office space

February 17, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

When federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo announced in September that Baltimore would receive another multimillion grant to rebuild an east-side housing project, he did not expect to start a fight.

HUD would send $21.3 million to demolish Broadway Homes, 429 low-income units at Broadway and Orleans Street, across the street from Johns Hopkins Hospital. By next year, a Hope VI development would go up there, with about 120 townhouses, about 20 percent of them for sale.

But a last-minute push by Hopkins and the city's housing authority for a land swap to move the development to the site of the vacant Church Home Hospital has roiled the surrounding neighborhood and frayed nerves.

Surprised by community outrage over the nearly completed deal, representatives from HUD's Washington headquarters held a private meeting in Baltimore last night to discuss the issue with housing officials and Washington Hill leaders who feel left out and want the proposal stalled and possibly shelved.

"It was like they were ready to stuff the thing down our throats," says longtime neighborhood activist Betty Hyatt, who argues that the city and developers have failed to consider residents' opinions.

Many vocal residents from Washington Hill -- a community of well-kept rowhouses and artists' lofts, most of them owner-occupied -- say they have been kept out of the planning process and didn't know about the land swap until it was nearly completed. Some residents, who repeatedly shouted down city and Hopkins officials trying to plead their case at a vitriolic community meeting on the subject last month, argue that the land swap would drive down property values.

Some also believe Hopkins would be a better community member if it spread more of its campus throughout the surrounding neighborhood. "When is Hopkins going to move off that hill, stop isolating itself and become a part of us?" asks Davida Kovner, a local resident.

Broadway Homes residents are thrilled with the idea of moving to the Church Home location, which has a sweeping view of downtown Baltimore and is less affected by traffic. "I can't imagine a nicer location for us to go than this," says Harry Karas, head of Broadway Homes' tenant council, who says the move is being opposed at least partly because his tenants are predominantly black and poor.

"They are fine with us if we are on their back door, if we are behind them," says Karas.

Shortly after Cuomo's speech, made at the opening of a west-side Hope VI development at the old Lexington Terrace project, the 142-year-old Church Home Hospital, famous partly because it is where Edgar Allan Poe died, suddenly closed.

Hopkins, in need of land to grow on, eventually agreed to purchase the hospital property. It expects a deal to close by June but refuses to discuss financial terms.

While pursuing Church Home, separated from Hopkins by one block occupied by a Popeye's Chicken restaurant and a parking lot, Hopkins also was enamored with the land where Broadway Homes sits.

Because it is just across the street from Hopkins and roughly the same size, at about 7 acres, the hospital feels it is a perfect fit, says the university's vice president of facilities, Sally MacConnell, who is spearheading the deal.

MacConnell said the hospital would turn the Broadway Homes land into offices, classrooms and possibly an inpatient clinic, which could be connected to the main campus by a tunnel.

MacConnell said she had the idea for the land swap in the fall. She had Landex Corp., a Pennsylvania construction company committed to developing the Broadway Homes site, study the concept. And she had the ear of Daniel P. Henson III, then the city housing commissioner, who wrote to HUD that the city was interested in the swap.

In early December, the development team began to consult with Karas and ask his tenants to approve the swap, taking them on a tour of the Church Home site. The Broadway Homes tenant council agreed to the deal in mid-January.

Washington Hill residents were not officially notified by the city until a Jan. 11 public meeting.

"They thought they could show up here with some pretty pictures of what this would look like and we would be thrilled," said Hyatt.

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