Uprooted once, maybe twice

Residents: Relocated once before, many of those living in one east-side block are reluctant to make way for a biotech park envisioned next to Hopkins Hospital.

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

Two years ago, Wade and Occilee Turner agreed to leave their longtime home on a decaying street as part of an effort to redevelop East Baltimore. In exchange, they were given a home a block and a half away, renovated with nearly $100,000 in public money.

So they were dismayed and outraged when they learned that their new home was on the list of properties to be seized by the city to make way for a proposed biotech park north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex.

"They're doing the same thing to us they did to the Indians," Wade Turner, a 73-year-old retired construction worker, said recently in the living room of his home in the 800 block of N. Washington St. "They tell you to get the hell out and go where they tell you to."

Several other residents, most of them elderly, were relocated in the past two years to 10 homes on the block that were renovated at a total cost of about $1 million. The problem they and the city face is illustrative of the complexities and compromises that come into play in doing large-scale urban development in residential areas.

For now, it appears that residents are likely to get at least a temporary reprieve from having to move again, but the long-term future of the block is very much up in the air.

After hearing complaints from residents and touring the area, City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch said she will remove the block from legislation authorizing the city to acquire properties for the biotech park when she moves the bill from the urban affairs committee she heads to the floor of the council, possibly as early as Monday.

Branch, a Democrat whose district includes the east side, said she is concerned that residents of the block who have been relocated once have not had an adequate opportunity to study the plan for the biotech park and hundreds of units of new and renovated housing.

`Impact on people'

"The emphasis [of the plan] was on the biotech park," she said. "No real thought was given to the impact on people."

Branch left open the possibility that the council might consider a future request by the city to acquire the block for the biotech park.

"The administration will have to meet and talk with the residents again and go over what the consequences are for remaining there," she said. "If they change their mind and want to relocate, legislation can be introduced again."

City officials say that it could be at least five years before the biotech park - now projected to take from 10 to 12 years to complete and to cover several square blocks in the center of the Middle East neighborhood - would reach the 800 block of N. Washington St. If the biotech park is built as planned and the residents remained beyond five years, they would find themselves surrounded by biotech buildings on three sides and the Hopkins complex on the fourth, officials say.

"We don't think that's the best option for the residents or the biotech park," said Laurie Schwartz, deputy mayor for neighborhood and economic development.

Schwartz said numerous public presentations over several months had shown the block as one of many to be acquired for the development, but that objections had only recently been raised. She said deleting the block from the acquisition legislation would not affect the initial phase of the biotech park, adding, "As the development of the biotech park unfolds, we'll reassess the situation."

Hopkins - which donated the properties that were renovated for the Turners and others to the nonprofit Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition and is a backer of the biotech park - calls the situation involving the block an "unfortunate miscoordination of well-meaning efforts."

"The recommended plan for the area suggests that the Washington Street homes should not remain," Hopkins said in a statement. "The residents have made their wishes known clearly, however. Now the challenge to the city's planners will be to devise alternatives that respect those wishes and to work with the community residents to determine a mutually agreeable plan that enables and supports the growth of a strong community."

Hopkins began buying abandoned properties on the block for possible expansion at tax sales an auctions in the mid- and late-1990s. In 1999, it transferred 10 of the properties to HEBCAC for $1 apiece.

In turn, HEBCAC - a partnership created by the city, state and Hopkins to reverse the decay of the east side - renovated them using federal money funneled through the city, part of a redevelopment strategy that focused on selective demolition and individual rehabs.

The newly renovated properties were offered to east-side residents in exchange for their homes, mostly "alley houses" on small streets, that were torn down as part of the redevelopment effort. The relocated residents would receive clear title to the new houses if they stayed there 10 years.

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