Hispanic enclave at center of debate

Developers, social agency eye same prime location

May 05, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Javier G. Bustamante brims with enthusiasm when he talks about his vision for a section of South Broadway he likes to call Spanish Town, his confidence building with every frame of his PowerPoint presentation.

"We are right now in the most important part of town," he said, pointing out the development corridor that runs from Inner Harbor East to Canton, and a few blocks north around Johns Hopkins Hospital. "When you look at us, we're smack in the middle. We definitely want to develop. This is our time."

He sees Broadway turned into a tree-lined boulevard, its narrow median widened and adorned with statues and fountains that would make it the centerpiece of the city's Hispanic community. A dreary metered lot at Bank Street would be replaced by a stylish parking garage.

And, in the 300 block of South Broadway, the long-vacant school of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church would be turned into a mall complete with a Spanish-style plaza built on the parking lot behind the school.

But Bustamante, chairman of the Spanish Town Community Development Corp., isn't the only one interested in the old school. Hispanic Apostolate/Immigration Legal Services also wants the site and has an agreement with the Archdiocese of Baltimore to buy the building, raze it and put up new offices.

The debate over the empty building is a sign of growing pains in Spanish Town as business interests compete with social concerns, and old friends find themselves on different sides. The Apostolate has outgrown its space on the third floor of the Joseph Center, one block away, and needs room to expand its programs. Meanwhile, Hispanic business leaders want to capitalize on the economic growth the area has seen in recent years.

The 2000 Census counted 11,061 Hispanics in Baltimore, but Bustamante and others put the true number at nearly three times that figure -- with most of the people living in Spanish Town, an area bounded by Central and Patterson Park avenues, and Fleet and Baltimore streets.

The population influx has transformed what was once known as Upper Fells Point. Stores catering to Hispanics line Broadway. The Latin Palace restaurant and nightclub has become a regular stop for bands specializing in salsa, merengue and other Latin styles.

As the community has grown, so have its needs. The Apostolate has been in the area for nearly two decades, providing educational programs and legal services.

Every week, volunteers stop by to teach English to newcomers and learn Spanish in return. A tiny office in back has been set aside for medical examinations. A sign on the Joseph Center's front door says the legal services agency is not taking any more cases because its caseload is full.

Hector L. Torres, director of the Apostolate, believes education programs and development can coexist.

"There does need to be business development in the community. But certainly, what we do is as important as business development," said Torres, former spokesman for the Fire Department. "We've had many people who started out here and became business owners."

Enrique Ribadeneira, who owns the Latin Palace, is one of those businessmen with a long and friendly relationship with the Apostolate. He drops by the agency two or three times a week and said he admires what it has done for the community.

"They certainly belong in the neighborhood," said Ribadeneira, who volunteered with the Apostolate for many years. "They just need to be placed correctly."

Putting the Apostolate's office on the school site would send a message "that the Catholic church is providing services to the community and feels a responsibility to reach out to the community," said Torres, whose agency is a division of Catholic Charities. The school is two doors from the church and next to St. Patrick's rectory, now a home for Jesuits. For Torres, the three locations offer a "continuum of services," pastoral and spiritual.

The school was an integral part of Fells Point for more than a century. Its doors opened in 1840. The current three-story building dates to 1887. Though a "no loitering" sign is posted on the vacant building's front door, the steps have become a favorite gathering place for the down-and-out. Still, the building is a piece of treasured history in preservation-minded Fells Point.

"There's no way we can knock that building down. No way," said Bustamante. "Are you crazy?"

The opposition has forced the Apostolate to look into possible alternatives. The trick will be in balancing demands for preservation against the agency's needs for expansion. There's also a potential funding problem.

As originally envisioned, the project would cost about $2 million. Any changes would likely bust the budget, said Torres. But a few more dollars might have to be spent for the sake of harmony.

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