Toppling of Tall Trees

Essex: Redevelopment is displacing residents of the apartment complex. Some welcome a move. But others feel betrayed.

May 29, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Each weekday, the Villages of Tall Trees on Baltimore County's east side stirs with the slow morning ballet of any average neighborhood. Workers catch a bus headed downtown, and children walk to school, parents following their sleepy-eyed charges like watchful shepherds.

There is, however, another more disturbing scene.

Along Old Eastern Avenue, a hunched-over woman takes her daily stroll, scouring the gutter for items of a value only she knows. And when Gussie's, next door to the Tall Trees complex, opens its doors at 10 a.m., the day's first customers pick up their brown-bag breakfast of Colt 45 or Hooper's Hooch. Nearby, the dope man is setting up shop.

Tall Trees, built more than a half-century ago for expediency's sake, is destined to be demolished in the name of progress.

Some, led by County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, say good riddance to the complex. But others contend that the 2,000 residents at Tall Trees have been marginalized, made invisible by a plan partially designed to lower renter density in an economically depressed area and to attract visitors to one of the county's untapped assets, the waterfront.

"The county has to be extremely careful the people at Tall Trees don't become the newest wave of homeless people," said Deborah A. Povich of the Maryland Center for Community Development.

Povich says the Tall Trees displacement is the latest chapter in the county's recent history of "urban renewal."

"They have to give meaningful care to these people whose lives are being disrupted. So they don't have much money; they are still human beings with families and hope."

When she visited Tall Trees recently with a county official, she was told a housing inspector was helping with the relocation of thousands of residents.

"That doesn't bode well," she says.

The Tall Trees complex of 105 red-brick buildings was built nearly 60 years ago by aircraft manufacturer Glenn L. Martin to house the civilian defense workers who descended on Middle River at the outbreak of World War II. Originally called Mars Estates, it had streets such as Doolittle and Rickenbackernamed for aviation figures.

After the war, many of the residents moved to the suburbs, and the character of the complex changed with its name. Many buildings were allowed to deteriorate and, over time, crime, particularly drug dealing, increased. Gunfire became a familiar sound.

In recent years, police said they received an average of 4,000 calls annually for service in and around the 40-acre complex. Recently, a man was fatally shot, and a 21-year-old resident was shot and seriously wounded by a 71-year-old man complaining about loud music. Both shootings occurred in the same block, 1600 Rickenbacker Road.

Today, Tall Trees lies in the epicenter of the most ambitious redevelopment project in county history. Officials have declared eminent domain on Tall Trees and are negotiating to buy the land to create a public park, part of a waterfront village of restaurants, upgraded marinas, single-family housing and condominiums on Middle River.

Construction for a separate, privately financed development, Hopewell Pointe, on a peninsula near Tall Trees, is set to begin this year. Its developers are spending $35 million to draw young homeowners, condo dwellers and boaters to the riverfront site.

Tall Trees is not, however, included under the county's much-debated condemnation law. That measure was passed after vigorous lobbying by Ruppersberger, Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat, and legislators such as Del. Michael H. Weir of Baltimore and Harford counties, who, in a public meeting, described Tall Trees residents as "dregs of society." In the legislation, the area was described as "blighted" and a "slum."

Other rental properties, such as Kingsley Park and Essextowne, home to hundreds of other low-income families and disabled people, are included under the law, and the county will purchase those properties at fair market value.

Opponents of the law hope to reverse the condemnation project by referendum in November. But even if they succeed, Tall Trees is doomed. Several properties there have been sold for prices ranging from $92,000 to $195,000, and bulldozers will be unleashed on the site possibly within a year.

Renters are being offered financial help -- more than $5,200 in some cases -- to move. But officials expect most will move to other apartments in the Essex-Middle River area. Of the 800 families who residedin Tall Trees, 76 received a federal rent subsidy.

"The renters at Tall Trees had little to say about their fate," Stephen M. Broache, director of housing policy for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "To most people, Tall Trees has been nothing more than a headline."

Residents fume at what they see as the condescending attitudes of those who shape public policy. They acknowledge that their lives have been widely different, somewhat limited because of economics. But to them, Tall Trees is home.

Here are some of their stories.

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