New site eyed for public housing

Annapolis residents would be relocated for state office expansion

March 19, 2001|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

They are inconspicuous yet readily discernible -- two small clumps of deteriorating rowhouses surrounded by the grand brick buildings of the state office complex and historic St. John's College in Annapolis.

The Bloomsbury Square public housing complex, with its tiny yards and lawn ornaments, charcoal grills, concrete stoops and clotheslines, seems out of place in the heart of the state capital. In this neighborhood, those who depend on public assistance are the nearest neighbors of those who shape public policy.

The community -- split in half by the state central services building -- has been targeted for extinction since 1968 to accommodate the expansion of state offices. But residents have proudly clung to the quiet enclave they say is the safest public housing in the city, going to court and crying foul at the state's attempts to relocate them.

Now, as the community celebrates its 60th birthday, the state might get its way by making an offer that many say is too good to decline.

"I think we have found a solution to a divided community and a partially disjointed state government complex," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat.

Last week, Taylor and other legislators wooed community residents over a buffet of barbeque ribs and sandwiches in the House Economics Matters room. There, they presented the plan they describe as a "win-win situation."

A few blocks away, along the banks of College Creek where there is now a parking lot, the state has offered to build waterfront townhouses to replace Bloomsbury Square. They will be bigger -- about 1,200 square feet, compared with the current units, 918 square feet and under -- and include central heat and air conditioning. The rent would be the same and the state would pick up the cost of relocation.

Then, the state would demolish the old rowhouses to expand the 25-year-old Lowe House Office Building that runs up against some of their back yards.

"I think it is a fine idea," said Agnes Mack, 73, who has lived in the community for 11 years. "The way they got it set up, it seems like it's going to be a nice place."

Mack said the plan definitely beats the alternative: If the residents do not consent, the state is going to expand through the parking lot that lines Mack's back yard. Legislators say they would rather not go with that alternative, which would create a "canyon effect" of buildings lining Bladen Street and would overwhelm the small community.

"We'd be boxed in -- closed in, like being in deep freeze," Mack said, noting that sunlight would no longer reach her tiny yard.

Leslie Bonilla, 39, a health care technician who lives there with her 18-month-old son and is expecting another child, said she visited her aunts at Bloomsbury Square when she was a child.

"It was old then," she said of the community, the second-oldest public housing complex in Annapolis and one of the oldest in the nation. "Everything is falling down."

Still, like most residents, she describes a peacefulness to life there, a pronounced difference from the city's other public housing communities, which are hidden from the sight of tourists and government officials and rife with crime.

"We don't have the drug problems here," she said. "We look out for each other."

It is that strong sense of community pride that has stood in the way of the state's past attempts to wipe out the section of 21 Bloomsbury units adjacent to the Lowe building. Residents have foiled the ambitions of even the most persistent state leaders. After all, they were there first and the office buildings sprung up around them.

Longtime state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein pledged he would see the community razed before he died, said Carl O. Snowden, special assistant to the Anne Arundel County executive and a former city alderman.

"Well, he died and Bloomsbury Square continued to stand," Snowden said.

In the early 1980s, Snowden led the residents' fight against the state's plan to take over the property.

The residents filed a lawsuit, successfully arguing that demolishing the historic district's only predominantly black and low-income community and relocating residents was "de facto segregation."

Snowden says he is in favor of state's new plan to keep residents in the neighborhood.

Now residents seem most concerned about keeping their community united.

Residents spoke out against any proposal that would have built new residences only for those in the 21 units in the first section.

"The community has been divided so long, it is very important that all 51 units be equal," said George A. Clark, president of the Bloomsbury Square Resident Council.

Though residents of the 21-unit section would be relocated first within the next two years at a cost of more than $3 million, the state has pledged to build new homes to replace the other 30 units.

Legislators have said they need to have the plan approved by April 9 to secure funding. Carter said the community will meet this week to discuss the plan. The housing authority's board will review the proposal this week as well, said P. Holden Croslan, executive director of the housing authority, which owns and maintains the property.

The relocation would afford many residents with one opportunity they might not have otherwise: a chance to live on the Annapolis waterfront.

"We're going to be right on the water, and that's nice," said Gregory Gally, 58. "If I had $350,000, I still couldn't afford a house on the water here."

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