City plan for troubled area alarms some

Residents divided over plan to raze homes near Hopkins

January 16, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Bob Reed has one question for Baltimore officials who are thinking of tearing down his East Baltimore rowhouse as part of a proposed 20- block redevelopment plan:

"Do they compensate for the time your parents have invested in that land?" asked Reed, 67, who has lived for 62 years in the Middle East community, three blocks north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Reed and others in the neighborhood learned last week of the city's proposal to raze the majority of a dilapidated 35-block portion of East Baltimore to make room for mixed-income homes, stores and a Johns Hopkins Hospital "bioscience park."

The city's goal is to change the landscape of East Baltimore, home to some of the most blighted neighborhoods in the city.

Reed and others who live in Middle East - which has five times more vacant homes than the city's average - say it's impossible to ignore the kicked-in doorways and flagrant drug activity in the area. But it's still their home.

And change isn't easy for a 62-year-old who has lived in the same house since before he could read, especially when he remembers the streets as they were 50 years ago, when few homes were vacant and drugs hadn't taken hold of the neighborhood.

"It wasn't always like this," Reed said. "Besides, everybody I know is around here. If I move, I have to adjust to new neighbors and a new environment. It's like moving to a new city."

Laurie Schwartz, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development, said the citizens of Baltimore deserve to live in better conditions than deteriorated Middle East can offer.

If the plan proceeds, Schwartz said, the city will try to move the families to stable neighborhoods.

Of the estimated 1,800 properties in the 20-square-block study site, about 1,000 are vacant houses or lots, she said.

Crime in the area, which has 10 churches and two elementary schools, is four times higher than the city's average.

Last year, there were four homicides, six rapes and 125 robberies in Middle East, according to police statistics.

"This neighborhood has an extremely high vacancy rate, and the No. 1-ranked medical institution sits in its midst," Schwartz said. "We want to revitalize the area so it becomes an active, affordable residential neighborhood."

The plan, which is in the development phase, reflects Mayor Martin O'Malley's strategy of building on the city's strengths - in this case, Johns Hopkins - to boost troubled neighborhoods.

The plan could easily cost hundreds of millions of dollars, so city officials know they will need private investors other than Johns Hopkins to make major contributions if the plan is to get off the ground.

The city has about $19 million left from a $34 million fund for east-side redevelopment, and officials said they want to use that money to leverage private investment.

The first step, they said, is developing a detailed plan that the neighborhood and the city can support.

City representatives and consultants met with about 50 members of the community for the first time last week to present their ideas and get feedback. They plan to meet again next month.

Lucille Gorham, president of the Middle East Community Organization, said that in most cases she doesn't approve of displacing people from their homes. But her neighborhood needs drastic measures, she said.

"My neighborhood is such a mess, something has to be done to stabilize it," Gorham said. "Some demolition is mandatory."

The vacant houses have leaking roofs and other problems, she said, and cause constant headaches for residents who live next to them.

Though the plan calls for an expansion of Hopkins, the city is taking the lead on the project. Hopkins spokeswoman Terry Todesco said she had no comment about the project because it's still in the development stage.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, whose district includes the redevelopment area, tempered his support for the project by urging Hopkins to include the community and elected officials in the planning.

"They essentially have put the cart before the horse," he said, reinforcing his point that Hopkins has not included area residents in forming the development plan.

"We're absolutely going to slow the process down until all the players, and I'm talking about the community and the elected officials, are part of the process," he said. "We don't want to stop the train. We want to slow it down and get on board."

Hardy Goodson, 76, is among the residents who say the neighborhood is so infested with bad elements that the only way to save it is to destroy it. He has lived in his house on McDonogh Street for 10 years.

"I hope they tear them all down," said Goodson, who lives in the house his sister bought in 1939. "All the old people are dead, and their houses are left open so anyone can go inside and do drugs or sleep in there."

Goodson, who has two children, 16 and 20, said he wouldn't mind moving from his block, where he and one other family live on the east side of the street.

"I'll find someplace to live," Goodson said. "Shoot, I'm 76, I don't have much time left."

Others aren't so quick to call for demolition.

Lucille G. Jennings, principal of Luther Craven Mitchell kindergarten and pre-kindergarten school at Chase and McDonogh streets, said the city should fix houses and get rid of drugs. Then, she said, people would move back to the area.

"The first thing they should do is clean up the area, get the drugs out," she said. "You can build all the houses you want, people aren't going to move in if you have drug addicts standing on the corner every hour, every minute."

Sun staff writer M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.

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