Church targeted in anti-blight effort

Buildings: Community and city officials say an East Baltimore church has allowed properties it owns to fall into disrepair.

April 17, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

In a historic area of East Baltimore, community leaders and city officials battling blight and the loss of architectural gems are at odds with an unlikely adversary - a large and prominent church.

The First Apostolic Institutional Faith Church and its community development corporation own or control several vacant rowhouses, a boarded church, a synagogue and a parsonage and a large empty parcel in a two-square-block area in Washington Hill, a stable community wedged between the Johns Hopkins medical complex to the north and Upper Fells Point to the south.

A half-dozen of the properties have code violations, some dating back three years, and several more have city liens totaling tens of thousands of dollars, mostly stemming from the demolition of badly deteriorated rowhouses, according to records and interviews.

One historic rowhouse, cited as unsafe last fall, was so badly damaged in a fire last month that it immediately had to be demolished by the housing department - at a cost to taxpayers of $3,000 to $5,000.

Residents and leaders of the neighborhood, which has been the site of several successful revitalization projects over a quarter-century, are increasingly frustrated with what they say is the church's failure to rehabilitate the properties or turn them over to someone who will.

They are pressing housing officials to take control of the properties and find a new developer for them - an action they said would be consistent with the O'Malley administration's new initiative to take control of thousands of derelict parcels.

"This is a major problem that's been allowed to go on for years," said Simon Hemby, president of Citizens for Washington Hill. "The church has done nothing."

Responding to critics

Bishop Franklin Showell, head of First Apostolic, which has been in Washington Hill for 55 years, takes issue with that negative assessment.

While acknowledging that redevelopment has taken longer than expected, he said such criticism ignores the fact that the properties were in bad shape when First Apostolic took them over and said that the church has invested millions in a new sanctuary at South Caroline and East Lombard streets and a community center in a renovated church across the street.

"The church has done a lot in that community," he said.

The community group's frustration is shared by the city's Commission on Historical and Architectural Preservation.

In mid-January, the commission complained in a letter to Showell that the church had never responded to a 1999 demand that it stabilize a historic church building and two historic rowhouses. The commission also complained that in the two years since it approved an exterior design, it had seen "no further development" of a plan to construct rowhouses on the now-vacant site of several church-owned properties that had to be demolished by the city because they had been so neglected.

`Troubling, perplexing'

"There does not seem to be effort on the part of the church to care for these historic buildings," Kathleen G. Kotarba, the commission's executive director, said in a recent interview. "It's very troubling and perplexing that a property owner would acquire so much property and not care for it."

Kotarba and other city officials say they are not aware of any other church holding on to so many vacant properties.

Showell said First Apostolic was guilty of failing to stick to its timetable, but nothing more.

"I would be the first to admit the process has been slow," he acknowledged. "We have set deadlines and not met them."

Many of the properties drawing complaints were derelict buildings that no one else wanted when the church bought them, he said.

"They act like we're the perpetrators of the blight and deterioration," he said of the critics. "That is nowhere near the truth."

Three years ago, however, a string of rowhouses in the 1400 block of E. Baltimore St. that the church's development arm bought in the mid-1990s became so blighted that the city had to tear them down, according to records and interviews. Municipal liens on the now-vacant half-block parcel resulting from that demolition total $115,483, according to the most recent property delinquency information issued this month. City liens on other church property in the area total $30,139.

Showell said he planned to pay off the liens on the East Baltimore Street parcel, which he claimed should be only about $67,000. Until the liens are satisfied, the city won't allow the church to reapply for $450,000 in public financing for a project to build nine new rowhouses.

Financing rescinded

Financing for the project had been approved in 1999 but was rescinded last August by housing officials.

"I never saw any submission of anything to indicate they were making progress," assistant housing commissioner JoAnn Copes explained. "I don't know why they didn't perform. They kept assuring us they would."

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