City unveils site plans

Biotech complex, redevelopment slated for east side

`Ambitious' project

Final cost, timetable are among details left to be negotiated

October 29, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

After months of discussions, the city has final site plans for a proposed biotech park in East Baltimore and the redevelopment of dilapidated areas around it - and a host of unanswered questions about the project.

The blueprint by Pittsburgh-based Urban Design Associates concentrates the biotech development along Madison Street and Ashland Avenue just north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex. A mix of townhouses and apartment buildings would be built in the blocks north of the park.

Work on the biotech buildings would be preceded by selective demolition and renovation in surrounding neighborhoods to provide an improved setting for the park and housing for displaced residents who want to remain in the area.

Among the details to be addressed are the project's price tag; a breakdown of funding sources; and a work schedule for what planners and city officials say will be a period of up to 10 years.

"All of us have more questions than answers," Mayor Martin O'Malley said when the plan was unveiled at a community meeting in East Baltimore this month.

The mayor addressed a mostly supportive audience of about 100, who questioned planners and city officials on details ranging from increased traffic to the prospects of having more retail outlets included in the plans.

One woman wanted to know how soon neighborhood residents would benefit from the project and asked for a more compact timetable. "We don't need the biotech park in 10 years, we need it in three years," she said.

Officials hope the park would draw new and established companies - attracted by the research conducted at nearby Hopkins - and create thousands of jobs.

O'Malley termed the project a "tremendous opportunity" for East Baltimore. But he cautioned that the project was a "big thing to do" - and a difficult one.

"If this was easy, it would have been done years ago," he said. "If this was inexpensive, it would've been done years ago."

Administration officials say they hope to have legislation listing the properties that need to be acquired ready for the City Council by December - about three months behind schedule.

Which properties will need to be taken, and when, are among the details to be worked out.

About 150 homeowners and 350 renters will be displaced by the biotech park, which will comprise several buildings between Broadway on the west and Collington Street on the east. An as-yet-unspecified number of properties will be needed for renovating the area around the park.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said at the community meeting at First John Tabernacle Church on Oct. 15 that the city is committed to ensuring that displaced residents wind up "being better off and not merely pushed aside to do a development."

To that end, he said, the city is prepared to pay each displaced homeowner $20,000 more than the value of his or her home and $22,500 in relocation money required by federal law.

With owner-occupied homes in the area typically valued at about $20,000, the cost of relocating each homeowner would be just more than $60,000 - or about $9 million for the homeowners in the footprint of the biotech buildings.

Concern over having adequate housing available for displaced residents is one of the key reasons for beginning the project by creating new and renovated housing along Broadway, where some renovation has begun, and in the surrounding neighborhoods of Oliver, Milton-Montford and Collington Square.

"Once that's under way, then it becomes possible to start clearing the ground for the biomedical facilities," said Raymond L. Gindroz, co-founder and principal of Urban Design Associates.

Other highlights of Gindroz' plan include narrowing streets north of the biotech park to carve space for front yards and installing roundabouts to slow traffic through residential areas.

"This is an ambitious plan," Gindroz said. "Everybody needs to be rowing in the same direction."

A consultant on the project, Paul C. Brophy, said he hopes that within 60 days he will have nonbinding letters of interest from several companies who could move to the biotech park.

Brophy said between two-thirds and three-quarters of the public money needed for the project would come from tax-increment financing - a funding technique in which the city uses future tax revenue to repay bonds issued to foster development. The rest will come from federal and state sources.

Brophy did not give a cost for the project, which previous estimates put at a minimum of $65 million. City officials said one is not available.

O'Malley said he has to "go out and find a way to raise the dollars" to make the plan a reality.

He said he is hopeful that private investors will commit money now that there is a development plan - one that could have a "dramatic effect" on the east side.

"This, I think, is the one area where we can leverage a lot of private dollars and do it quickly," he said. "Just maybe we'll start seeing that private scaffolding come up throughout East Baltimore."

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