Community turnaround

Apartments: A thorough renovation and zero-tolerance security are changing the look and feel of 188 units for people to call home.

January 24, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The Royal Oak Apartments used to be an "anything goes" type of place: drug dealing, people illegally tapping into electrical and phone lines, stairwells and hallways turned into public restrooms.

Management was unwilling or unable to do anything about those problems, or the broken windows, ripped-out light fixtures and overall deterioration that had made the Section 8 complex in Park Heights a sinkhole for thousands of federal tax dollars each month.

Now, a $17 million sale and renovation of Royal Oak is slowly turning the longtime trouble spot in the 2400 block of Loyola Northway into a decent place for the women and children who are its primary residents. The first apartments should be finished and ready for tenants this week.

"Deplorable would be a kind term," said Michael Myers, the project manager, in describing the complex as it was last summer, when Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse closed the sale from John Wagner and Greenspring Apartment Limited Partnership. "It's pretty obvious there had been very low maintenance on the project before we came in. And what was done was basically Band-Aid."

City housing officials had more than 106 code violations on record for Royal Oak last summer. Tenants fed up with the conditions called in Legal Aid, the Health Department, the Fire Department and the Housing Department. On one day last summer, inspectors from four city and federal agencies toured the complex that sits on a hill above West Cold Spring Lane and Greenspring Avenue. They came armed with clipboards, cameras and flashlights.

The inspectors have since been replaced by an army of construction workers with skip loaders, cranes and other heavy equipment. Rather than shut down the complex and move the tenants, the developers opted to move families in and out of buildings as the work progressed.

For months, the 116 families who remain at Royal Oak have lived in a construction zone. They have endured water shut-offs, expected and unexpected. Men in hard hats are everywhere, their heavy work boots impressing the mud and dust. The air buzzes with the sound of circular saws. Sparks fly from welding torches. Trucks rumble in and out of the chain-link gate that opens onto Loyola Northway.

Apartments have been ripped apart and completely renovated. A new storm-water system has been put in to prevent the flooding that was a regular nuisance. Work crews have cleaned air ducts clogged with 30-plus years' worth of lint, dirt and grime.

One apartment building was demolished to reduce density at Royal Oak from 207 units to 188 units. A community center with a multipurpose room and computer room is being built to give the complex a greater sense of neighborhood. The work, which averages out to $40,000 per unit, is scheduled to be completed in September.

"At one time, the construction really bothered me, 6 o'clock in the morning," said Lakeshia Pate, 23, a Royal Oak tenant for a little more than two years. "Now, I'm used to it because I know it's going to make a difference when it's done."

The renovation should change the look and feel of an apartment complex that neighboring homeowners have complained about for years. The once neglected collection of brick apartment buildings seems out of place beside the tidy, single-family rowhouses that surround Royal Oak.

George Collins, president of the Parklane Neighborhood Improvement Association, said he was "very impressed" with what is happening. Reggie Scriber, ombudsman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said the violations against Royal Oak are being held in abeyance.

"We believe that those violations will be resolved by the renovation," he said. "It's going along great. Now, there may be some inconveniences for the residents that remain."

April McClain, 37, and Kim Pryor, 30, complain about the dust, the water shut-offs and the increased security that to them seems like harassment. People are routinely stopped and questioned. Loitering is discouraged. The developers and tenants are putting together a handbook aimed at correcting past problems such as loud music, visitors violating residency restrictions and timely reporting of needed repairs.

"The big thing is better security on site, laying out those expectations," said Michael V. Seipp, development director. "You just establish a zero tolerance."

That strict approach, so radically different from previous management, has grated on some tenants' nerves.

"You can't stand out on your front," said Pryor. "It's unfair."

But developers and others say the increased security, along with evictions, have made Royal Oak safer. Before the renovation began, the developers and members of a tenant's group that publicized the problems at the complex agreed that keeping all of Royal Oak's tenants -- especially those who violated their leases -- could doom the project. About 15 tenants have moved.

"Some people ended up moving voluntarily," said Seipp. "[Others] were sent notices that if they didn't leave, they would be evicted."

Police calls to the complex have dropped over the past few months, said Seipp. Pate said "a great change" has happened, and she doesn't hear nearly as many gunshots.

Mark Freedy, project superintendent, uses his own anecdotal evidence to tell him Royal Oak is a better place.

"Shell casings have dropped to a minimum," he said.

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