City seeks a revival for blighted buildings

Urban Chronicle

Decay: Baltimore has targeted abandoned properties, such as the four vacant structures owned by a prominent east-side church.

October 02, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

HAD THINGS gone according to Hoyle - or, more precisely, an original court order - four vacant properties owned by the development arm of a prominent East Baltimore church would have been almost completely renovated by now, or turned over to someone with the wherewithal and the will to do the work.

Instead, nearly a year later, lawyers for the city are still arm-wrestling with Bishop Franklin C. Showell, head of the 3,500-member First Apostolic Institutional Faith Church and operator of the blighted properties owned by the Apostolic Community Development Corp. in the historic Washington Hill neighborhood.

City lawyers have filed for action in two courts. In Baltimore District Court, they are seeking up to $15,000 in fines from the Apostolic CDC for violations on a boarded-up, three-story brick building in the first block of S. Caroline St. that was built in the early 19th century as a church parsonage. In city Circuit Court, the city aims to have an outside party sell the Caroline Street property at auction, and use the proceeds from the sale for the renovation of a string of three long-vacant Apostolic CDC-owned rowhouses around the corner on East Lombard Street, a block east of Corned Beef Row.

And the lawyers have scheduled a meeting with Showell for Oct. 14 - 10 days after a deadline in a second court order to obtain a "unequivocal commitment of financing" to rehabilitate the Lombard Street rowhouses or sell them.

"We're looking to turn up the heat," said Michael E. Braverman, director of the city's code enforcement legal section. "We're trying to send a new message that these orders mean something."

The Apostolic CDC case illustrates the difficulty of dealing with recalcitrant property owners at a time when the city is stepping up its efforts to address the issue of derelict buildings, a problem in so many city neighborhoods.

Just last month, the city announced it was hiring 20 inspectors as part of a program to improve compliance with housing codes.

Also, the city is well into its two-year Project 5000, an effort to gain control of thousands of abandoned and tax-delinquent properties.

Showell, in a brief telephone conversation, said renovations to the South Caroline Street building had been delayed by the weather. "I don't have to tell you it's been raining," he said. As for being able to show the money to renovate the Lombard Street rowhouses, he said, "We have the financing, don't worry. I met with the architect."

But a housing inspector said in court papers last month that he saw little change in the South Caroline Street building between April and August. Showell's contention that financing is available to improve the Lombard Street buildings is greeted with skepticism by community leaders, who are increasingly frustrated by the lack of action.

"We've been to so many court dates, and we still have abandoned, blighted properties," said Maureen Sweeney-Smith, executive director of Citizens of Washington Hill, a community considered by preservationists to be a "rowhouse museum" because it has so many architecturally significant structures.

Some improvements have been made since the city brought Showell into court in May last year. The Lombard Street properties, described in court by a city lawyer as home to a "army of vagrants," are now secured and surrounded in the rear by a metal fence topped by barbed wire.

Also, factors beyond Showell's control have caused the case to drag on interminably. A three-day District Court trial featured a postponement requested by Showell and was spread over six weeks to accommodate the schedule of a part-time judge.

The result was a court decree issued last October that required Showell and Apostolic CDC to rehabilitate the Caroline Street property within two months and the Lombard Street properties within a year, or turn them over to somebody else.

But after Showell appealed the order to Circuit Court, a second order was negotiated in February. This one set an April 4 deadline for the renovation or disposition of the South Caroline Street property and an Oct. 4 deadline for proof of financing for the Lombard Street rowhouses. "He's benefited from some of the timing issues that occur," Braverman said of Showell.

In June, the city filed its motion in Circuit Court seeking to have a court-appointed agent sell the South Caroline Street rowhouse. But the retired judge who presided over the litigation is on vacation through the end of the year. His cases are being handled by another judge, whose office could not immediately say if or when a hearing might be held.

It's an open question whether these new deadlines will be enforced - or whether, a year from now, the city is still grappling with these four properties.

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