Rowhouse razing first step in building biotech park

Homes on blighted block on east side being leveled

$800 million effort near Hopkins

November 11, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

As city demolitions go, the razing of vacant buildings scheduled for today in East Baltimore does not figure to be particularly dramatic.

There will be no synchronized collapse of large structures and no plumes of dust visible for miles, as there was when the city tore down its hulking public housing high-rises.

But the planned leveling of a pair of rowhouses by front-end loaders will make up in symbolism what it lacks in size and spectacle.

That's because these demolitions, in a mostly vacant square block in the shadow of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, will be the first to make way for the proposed $800 million east-side redevelopment centered on a biotech park.

"This does demonstrate in yet another way the continuing progress of the project," said Jack Shannon, president and chief operating officer of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit set up to oversee the development of the biotech park and hundreds of units of new and renovated housing in one of the city's most blighted areas.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and Johns Hopkins executives are scheduled to join Shannon for a public event to highlight the demolitions at 10 a.m.

Over the next several weeks, all but one of the 16 buildings that remain on the block will be torn down.

The demolitions - in the block bounded by Madison Street, Rutland Avenue, Ashland Avenue and Wolfe Street - are significant because they will create a parcel that can be developed. Along with the mostly vacant square block to the east, where the few remaining buildings will be torn down later, the block will be a prime candidate for the first of several life sciences buildings planned for construction over the next several years.

Early next year, East Baltimore Development will seek a developer for the first part of the biotech project, including the first block.

Besides creating a sense of momentum, Shannon said, another reason to begin demolishing the buildings now was to "address one of the most distressed housing and environmental situations within the project area."

The block is a pastiche of vacant fenced areas that serve as a parking lot and staging area for construction trailers for projects at the medical complex, interspersed with boarded-up rowhouses, some with crumbling steps or no steps at all, and empty sidewalk planters.

"That was one of the most de-populated blocks within the project area," said Shannon. "No one could say the current environment was conducive to anyone's quality of life."

This year, eight households, a mix of homeowners and renters, were living in seven occupied buildings. Now, all but one of them has been relocated.

Among those relocated was Sharon Tyler.

Tyler, 55, a retired clerk and food service worker at Hopkins who is raising two teen-age grandsons, had lived for 21 years in a rowhouse in the 1800 block of E. Madison St. In April, she sold her house to the city for $17,000, records show. That same month, with the aid of a relocation fund set up to assist displaced homeowners and renters, she bought a $64,900 townhouse condominium in the Ashland Mews development a few blocks away.

"It went smooth for me," she said of the relocation. "I feel like I was treated fairly. [East Baltimore Development officials] held my hand the whole way."

Tyler says her new home is "nicer" than her old one. "It doesn't have a basement, but that's OK," she said. "I'm satisfied with it."

Also relocated was Tyler's sister and next-door neighbor, Valarie Wright, who was aided in the purchase of a $69,900 home in September in the Parkside area several blocks to the north and east.

"It seems strange that I don't live next door to her" any more, Tyler said.

The lone remaining occupied building in that block of East Madison is a rowhouse that records show is owned by the Evans Temple Memorial Church of God. A woman who responded to a written note left at the house declined to be interviewed; efforts to reach officials of the church, located a few blocks away, were unsuccessful.

East Baltimore Development is looking to find "high-quality replacement housing" for occupants of the house before undertaking demolition of that building and an adjacent one, Shannon said.

The one building on the block to be spared from demolition is a large, well-maintained structure in the 1800 block of Ashland Ave. that serves as an office of Goodwill Industries.

Many of the vacant properties on the block, both lots and buildings, are owned by Hopkins or the real estate arm of Kennedy Krieger Institute. City and East Baltimore Development officials are working with the institutions to take control of the properties. Other properties were acquired by the city over the last several months for modest sums.

Today's event will be the third in recent months to highlight progress on the biotech project, which officials say could create thousands of jobs and take a decade to complete. Last month, O'Malley and other officials gathered to celebrate the opening of a newly renovated Community Resource Center.

In July, a public announcement was made of a $21.2 million federal loan to jump-start the initiative.

In January, the city is expected to begin notifying owners that it plans to acquire properties in a nine-square-block area that makes up Phase I of the redevelopment effort.

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