Church begins cleaning up its blighted sites

Judge also delays hearing about four city properties

August 15, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Facing legal action by the city, the development arm of a large and prominent East Baltimore church has begun cinder-blocking and cleaning four blighted properties in historic Washington Hill that community leaders say are a dangerous eyesore.

But a lawyer for the city said yesterday that the work on properties owned by the Apostolic Community Development Corp., an offshoot of the 3,500-member First Apostolic Institutional Faith Church, was being done without proper permits. The city did not indicate whether it plans action related to the alleged permit violations.

Evan L. Helfrich, a special assistant city solicitor, said the work being done on three abandoned rowhouses on East Lombard Street and a vacant former church building on South Caroline Street doesn't go far enough in meeting the city's demand that Apostolic renovate the buildings or turn them over to someone who will.

"If they can't afford to rehab the properties, they need to sell them," Helfrich said.

A hearing was postponed yesterday on a request by the city for a court order requiring the development corporation to submit within 10 days either a plan for renovating the properties, including details of financing and contracting, or one for selling them to a qualified buyer.

James Rouse - attorney for the development corporation and for Bishop Franklin C. Showell, head of First Apostolic church and described in court papers as the "operator" of the properties - said he had just been hired and needed more time to prepare.

District Judge Jack I. Lesser granted a postponement until Sept. 4. But he said it would be the "last postponement for the defendants."

A court date scheduled for last month had to be put off when the city could not serve Showell with a summons.

Notices of serious property code violations were issued on 1404, 1406 and 1408 E. Lombard St. a year ago, and on 10 S. Caroline St. nearly three years ago, records show. The notices said the properties were uninhabitable and unsanitary and not secured against unwanted entry.

Residents disparagingly referred to the East Lombard Street rowhouses as the "Showell hotel" because they said they were home to so many addicts, squatters and vagrants.

Reinspections of the properties in mid-May found that the violations had not been corrected and that the buildings posed a threat to the health and safety of the neighborhood, according to the city's court filing.

The reinspections were conducted a month after an article in The Sun detailed concern about properties controlled by the church and its development corporation that had been raised by residents of Washington Hill, a stable community south of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, and officials of the city's Commission on Historic and Architectural Preservation.

In an interview outside the courtroom, Showell denied that the cleaning and cinder-blocking of the properties - which continued yesterday afternoon - was prompted by the pending court action. He said he had plans to turn the South Caroline Street property into apartments and the East Lombard Street rowhouses into women's transitional housing.

Showell said the community was being unreasonable.

"Every time I say what I'm going to do, the community takes an opposition," he said. "They're trying to make this a personal thing."

But Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill, complained that "the only time [Showell] does anything is when he has the threat of court hanging over him."

"We're frustrated with how slow the process runs," she added, "but we're determined to see it through."

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