Homeowner aid restrictions lifted in biotech park plan

Residents at last hearing on proposal are pleased

September 27, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Seeking to allay a key community concern, officials announced last night that they were lifting eligibility restrictions for extra financial aid for homeowners who would be displaced by a proposed East Baltimore biotech park.

The announcement of the change was made at the last of four City Council hearings on legislation that would allow the city to seize up to 3,300 properties for the biotech park and hundreds of units of new and renovated housing units around the Johns Hopkins medical complex.

It drew applause from residents who packed the auditorium and gymnasium of Elmer A. Henderson Elementary School in the blighted Middle East neighborhood just north of the complex, where two-thirds of the properties are located.

The change means that homeowners whose property would be taken for the project would receive $70,000 plus the value of their houses if they moved anywhere within the city.

Officials also said they would consider on a case-by-case basis whether to offer that sum to displaced homeowners who wanted to move out of the city.

Previously, the city had said that only homeowners who remained in East Baltimore would receive the full $70,000, while those who moved elsewhere in Baltimore would get $50,000 and those who moved beyond the city limits would receive the federally mandated relocation benefit of $22,500.

That initial policy upset many residents and housing advocates, who said it unfairly - and possibly illegally - limited residents' choices on where to live.

Last night's hearing had little rancor. Most who testified simply wanted to clarify whether and when their properties might be taken.

Lillian Jackson, whose home in the 2200 block of E. Chase St. is on the acquisition list, also asked about the change in relocation policy.

"So I have the opportunity to pick a house in any neighborhood I choose?" she asked. Told that was indeed the case, Jackson returned to her seat.

Later, Jackson, 71, who has lived in her house for 40 years, said she was not pleased by being displaced but that she was "very happy" about the new policy.

Shrene Burnett, a representative of the Save Middle East Action Committee, which has been advocating for residents since the project was announced nearly two years ago, said the new policy "sounds good." But she added, "We'll see what happens in the end."

Earlier last night, Burnett testified that she was concerned about assistance to displaced renters. "We have a lot of them in our neighborhood," she said.

The biotech park - projected to be built in stages over the next 10 years and encompass 2 million square feet of office and laboratory space - is a key community revitalization and economic development effort by the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Before it can proceed, the council must approve amendments to the urban renewal plans for five east-side communities: Broadway East, Gay Street, Johnston Square, Oliver and Middle East.

Of the 2,208 properties in Middle East that would be acquired for the project, half are abandoned buildings or vacant lots, officials said last night.

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