Biotech park moves ahead

City to seek authority to acquire 3,300 properties

`Significant intervention required'

East-side project may take up to 10 years to complete

April 23, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Moving ahead with a major effort to revive a mostly decayed area of East Baltimore, the O'Malley administration is seeking authority to acquire 3,300 properties to make way for a proposed biotech park and hundreds of units of new and rehabilitated housing.

The initial phase of the redevelopment project calls for leveling what remains of a largely vacant square block north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, where the first of several buildings for the biotech park would be located, officials said yesterday.

That phase also calls for the rehabilitation of 100 vacant properties in three separate areas along the project's borders, officials said.

A second phase, to include the demolition of about 2 1/2 square blocks for additional biotech buildings and the revitalization of an equal number of heavily deteriorated residential blocks, will follow shortly, officials said.

The entire project, including other phases in the early planning stages, could take up to 10 years to complete.

"We've said all along this is going to be a bold and dramatic plan," said Laurie B. Schwartz, deputy mayor for economic and community development.

"To reverse the decline in this part of East Baltimore, a significant intervention is required," said Schwartz, who likened the scale of the revitalization effort to that of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor in the 1960s and 1970s.

Authorization to acquire the properties is contained in legislation to be introduced before the City Council on Monday. The planning commission, as well as the council, must approve the legislation.

Notices have been sent to property owners, and a series of informational community meetings is scheduled this week.

The notices follow an announcement last week that a new nonprofit organization - East Baltimore Development Inc. - would be created to oversee the area's revitalization and that agreements had been reached with Hopkins and community leaders on minority participation and compensation for displaced homeowners.

Officials are counting on the reputation of Hopkins' research to attract new and established companies to the biotech park. As many as 8,000 people could eventually work there, they say, spurring the transformation of an area that has undergone decades of deterioration into a vibrant, mixed-income community.

About two-thirds of the properties the city is seeking authority to acquire are in what officials describe as the core area of redevelopment - a blighted swath of land studded with barren lots and boarded rowhouses known as Middle East and bounded by the Hopkins medical complex on the south, Broadway on the west, the Amtrak rail line on the north and Collington Street on the east.

Besides Middle East, other communities in the redevelopment area include Broadway East, Gay Street, Johnston Square and Oliver.

City officials stress that they may not need to acquire all the properties listed in the legislation but say that they want the right to seize them to counter the possibility of further abandonment or to make adjustments to the plan.

Even though some of the properties that will be required may not be needed for years, officials say they decided to seek authority to acquire all of them at once, rather than in stages, to send a positive message to investors and developers.

"We need to be able to show that [East Baltimore Development Inc.] has the ability to carry out the entire master plan," Schwartz said.

As outlined in a draft proposal, the initial phase should result in limited dislocation: All of the 100 properties slated for rehabilitation in the 800 and 900 blocks of North Broadway and in the Madison Square and Collington Square neighborhoods are vacant. There are only about a dozen homeowners in the square block that would be cleared for the first biotech building.

Most of the properties in that square block are owned by Hopkins, which has said it would deed them over to the new nonprofit redevelopment authority, officials said.

Current projections anticipate that the second phase would result in the displacement of about 100 homeowners and 170 renters, officials said.

Under the agreements announced last week, displaced homeowners who choose to remain in East Baltimore will receive up to $70,000, plus the value of their home, toward the purchase of a new home. That benefit decreases to $50,000 for homeowners who buy in other areas of the city, and to $22,500 to homeowners who buy outside the city.

To discourage speculators from taking advantage of the benefit, the money will be available only to residents who owned their homes at the time of the legislation's introduction, officials said.

If the project is built as planned, city officials estimate that 300 homeowners will lose their residences.

They have also estimated the total public investment at about $200 million, of which about $20 million is in hand.

William F. Merritt, a city housing official working on the project, said many details have yet to be worked out - among them which residential sections of the core redevelopment area will undergo rehab work and which will be demolished to assemble land for new housing.

A block-by-block analysis - including such factors as the structural and historic quality of the houses - will help to determine what to do, he said.

The first two phases of the project could be completed by 2005, he said.

Schwartz said that the cost of the initial phase was being calculated but that there was enough money on hand to complete it and begin work on the next phase.

But the second phase - so closely aligned to the initial phase that some planners refer to it as 1B - would "require additional resources to complete," she said.

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