Vacant site to be razed

Strathdale complex's impending demolition pleases its neighbors

`A downright mess'

Developers have plan for new housing but lack financing

November 05, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The wrecking ball is about to crash through the walls of the abandoned Strathdale Manor apartments, bringing an end to a complex that has long been an East Baltimore eyesore.

"We've been dying for this place to come down," said Raymond M. Lowder, president of the Frankford Improvement Association. "It was just a downright mess."

Late last month, the Board of Estimates approved spending $1 million in state money to demolish the sprawling, 18-acre complex along the 6100 block of Frankford Ave. Work could begin within two weeks.

This is a huge step forward for Frankford, Lowder said. With the site cleared, the community looks forward to the day when market-rate housing is built there.

Developers Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, and Duracon Contracting Inc. have a proposal ready but are $4.5 million short of having a viable financing package. Local and state officials are not optimistic that they can close the gap with public funding soon.

City officials have extended the developers' exclusive agreement until June. If the deadline isn't met, the city will solicit new proposals for development.

Frankford residents and the area's elected officials hope that does not happen.

"This community is tired of waiting," said Del. Talmadge Branch, who represents the area. "This is a pretty strong community, a voting community, and they don't want anything else up there but homes. They feel, and so do I, that it would beautify their community and raise the value of their property."

City Council President Sheila Dixon said the city and developers "need to move forward on the market-rate housing project that the community has been working on."

The problem, however, is where to find the money.

"We have the dollars now to go ahead with demolition," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "Hopefully at some point we might also be able to come up with some dollars for development. Right now we don't have those dollars."

Branch said he is considering asking Gov. Parris N. Glendening for $1.5 million for the project during next year's legislative session. That could allow some development to begin.

But given recent budget projections, the state might not be able to help. Last week, legislative analysts predicted a $1.7 billion revenue shortfall over the next two years.

Strathdale's history is one of failed investments, bankruptcies and public dollars poured down what seemed a bottomless pit. A financing deal in 1988 put $16 million in state money into the nearly 40-year-old apartment complex, but that did little to stem the slow deterioration, high vacancy rate and crime.

In the mid-1990s, neighborhood activists fought a proposal to renovate the buildings for what developers said would be moderate-income tenants. Then, as now, the community stressed the need to increase the number of homeowners in Frankford and its surrounding communities.

By April 1997, Strathdale was empty and well on its way to becoming a source of community frustration. It became a ghost land haunted by vagrants and stray dogs, a bleak, forbidding world of empty three-story buildings without windows or doors, its grounds overgrown with weeds. Illegal dumpers found it a perfect site.

"We joke about it, but it's a half-joke and half-serious that we won't be surprised if when they start going through there that they might find a body," Lowder said. "It's been that kind of place."

Public pressure forced the city to fence off the property. Now, the derelict buildings, once home to hundreds of families, wait for the wrecking crews to arrive.

"It's just never seemed to work," said City Councilwoman Lois Garey. "It's been a mess for as long as I've been involved in community work, and that's over 20 years."

Once the site is cleared, it will be graded, seeded and fenced off.

Residents and officials say the city's east side has a need for new housing. The stable communities of modest homes have held on through Baltimore's tough times and need a boost, they say.

"Not to pit one community against another, but we put a whole lot of money on the west side," Garey said. "Northeast Baltimore is a community that's on the edge. There is some stability here, but we need a little help."

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