Residents upset over land swap proposal

Washington Hill dispute delays plan for housing

June 12, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

A city-backed scheme to tear down the now defunct Church Hospital and replace it with a low-income and market rate housing development, thought to be nearly a done deal in January, has become bogged down in a community planning process so tense that a federal arbitrator has been called.

At issue is a proposed swap of two roughly nine-acre parcels of land near Johns Hopkins Hospital. One is the city-owned site of the dilapidated 429-unit Broadway Homes housing project, directly across the street from Hopkins. The other is the former Church Hospital, at Fayette Street and Broadway, which Hopkins has an option to buy.

The Baltimore Housing Authority wants the sale to go through so that it can eventually build a federally-backed housing development on the Church Hospital location. That sale would happen after the proposed property swap.

But the plan has stalled because residents from Washington Hill, a stable neighborhood which encompasses Church Hospital, were left out of the tentative land swap agreement brokered by the city and were not told of the plan until January, when the deal was nearly complete.

The housing authority held six public meetings since January, in an unsuccessful bid to foster community-wide approval of the plan.

Last week a privately contracted arbitrator from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees housing projects like the one the city plans, was brought in to find a solution. After interviewing officials and community members, the Philadelphia-based arbitrator is currently drawing up a schedule for the next round of talks, which should take place over the next three months.

The housing authority's position has not wavered, according to its director, Patricia Payne. She said the meetings will focus solely on looking at the "development of the Church Home hospital site," which she added is favored partly because the hillside location has a view of the city.

Sue Thompson, executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill, said part of the reason talks have ended badly in the past is because the housing authority has clearly favored the swap and has yet to consider an alternative that didn't include it.

The proposal to tear down and replace Broadway Homes is a part of the Clinton administration-backed HOPE VI initiative to replace deteriorating housing projects with low density, well-designed units that are a mix of low-income rentals and properties for sale. The new development, as envisioned, would consist of about 120 units, about 80 of which would be set aside for the poor. It would be paid for partly by a $21.3 million federal grant.

However, Mayor Martin O'Malley tossed out an alternative idea Thursday.

"Maybe we should just go rehab Broadway Homes," he said, adding that it might be less costly than a new development.Mediated talks may not finish until the end of summer, meaning that the development plan - already in the works since most Broadway Homes residents have been relocated - is far off an original timeline that called for groundbreaking to take place by October.

The two parcels of land are no more than 40 yards from one another, separated diagonally by the busy intersection of Broadway and Fayette Street. But Hopkins covets the Broadway Homes land because it is directly across the street from its campus.

If the exchange of properties takes place, Hopkins would build offices, laboratories and a parking complex on the Broadway Homes site. The plan, formulated behind closed doors late last year and backed by the Broadway Homes tenant council and Hopkins, was pushed though with the help of former Housing Authority head Daniel P. Henson III. It seemed destined to go through when first made public at the beginning of the year.

But many Washington Hill residents were up in arms. At a January meeting to announce the plan, they complained bitterly because of being left out of the planning process and not having a chance to change or veto the proposal.

Payne, stung by criticism of a plan she endorsed but did not develop, first called for a cooling off period and then convened a series of meetings in March and April in an effort to bring Washington Hill residents to the table.

The meetings only increased disenchantment because the Housing Authority would only discuss design options for a new development at Church Hospital.

"We are going to go forward and explore the Church Homes site," Payne told an audience in March.

Though Payne's position upset many Washington Hill residents, some are optimistic because they feel they have City Hall's ear.

"The city seems to be listening to our concerns for the first time," said Ann Damiano, president of Citizens for Washington Hill. She's also concerned about the preservation of Church Hospital, including the wing where mystery writer Edgar Allen Poe died in 1849.

Former residents of Broadway Homeswho will have a chance to move back to the new development, are upset with the delays.

"This whole thing has been a fiasco," said Harry Karas, head of the tenant council. "My people are being inconvenienced by this. They were moved out, and now the Housing Authority can't figure out what the heck to do. The longer they take to decide, the more my people are left twisting. We just want some action."

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