Church's vote gives city land to build 1,100 housing units

New Psalmist Baptist OKs relocation for $16.5 million

September 02, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

In what officials are calling a historic opportunity, Baltimore is assembling land for its biggest housing development in decades by relocating a prominent church and clearing a vacant, sprawling low-income housing complex to create space for 1,100 new apartments, homes and condominiums.

Plans for the nearly 100-acre Southwest Baltimore site near the Baltimore County line call for some of the housing to be affordable and the majority to be sold at market rates, with some expected to command prices of $400,000 or more.

Under the proposal, the 7,000-member New Psalmist Baptist Church - one of the city's largest and most influential congregations - will move from its home off Edmondson Avenue to a city-owned parcel in the Seton Business Park a couple of miles to the north.

The church land, in an area of mostly stable middle- and upper-income communities, will be combined with the vacant Uplands Apartments site, where demolition is scheduled to begin next month.

"This is the most significant new housing development we've done in 50 years," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We need to bring people back to the city. This is consistent with our long-term strategy for growth."

The sheer number of planned new houses dwarfs the number of housing units built at any recent city development, subsidized or market rate, officials said.

"It's up there with any city development, including the Inner Harbor," said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, head of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency.

The city will pay New Psalmist $16.5 million for its school, sanctuary, administration offices and nearby auxiliary buildings.

Of that money, $14.1 million will be in cash and $2.4 million will be in the value of the land for the church's new complex in the business park off Northern Parkway in Northwest Baltimore. The cash will come from a special 30-year bond, the principal and interest of which will be paid from property taxes generated by the new houses, city officials said.

New Psalmist's pastor, the Rev. Walter S. Thomas Sr., said the church will need to spend an additional $16 million beyond what it is getting from the city to relocate.

Thomas, who acknowledged that he was initially skeptical of the plan, said the move would allow the church to consolidate and expand. But there was also an altruistic and spiritual component to the decision, he said.

"We felt this would be a good opportunity for the community and the city of Baltimore," he said. "I don't think anyone would have thought about the southwest as a site for a major housing rebirth.

"We had to step back and believe as a matter of faith."

Last night, New Psalmist members voted overwhelmingly to approve the move, said Joi Thomas, the church's director of media relations.

An announcement of the deal and of the master plan for the Uplands Apartments site, more than a year in the making, is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. today.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, whose congressional district includes the area, said in a statement last night that he is excited to see the project move forward. "As one who grew up in the nearby neighborhood of Edmondson Village, I believe that this project will be the beginning of a new and dynamic housing renaissance on the far west side of our great city," he said.

The Uplands site will contain 696 units of housing - 215 rental units and 481 homes.

Because Uplands was foreclosed on by the Department of Housing and Urban Development after a private owner defaulted on a federally backed mortgage, more than 70 percent of the houses are subject to limitations on sale prices.

But because there is no HUD involvement in the purchase of the New Psalmist parcels, houses built there are not subject to federal affordability regulations.

City housing officials estimated that the about 400 units at the New Psalmist sites would sell for an average of $200,000.

A tentative timetable for the development calls for the city to go before the Planning Commission next week with the Uplands site proposal and the acquisition of a small triangular plot of land fronting Edmondson Avenue. Construction at Uplands would begin in October 2005.

The city would acquire the parcel that contains the church's auxiliary buildings, known as the Gundry Glass mansion property, in March and begin preparing the site for construction.

New Psalmist, which was visited by Bill Clinton toward the end of his presidency, would have until June 2010 to vacate its main property.

Thomas said church officials would begin working today on plans "so we can meet the date of 2010 to be gone."

The discussions to relocate New Psalmist, initiated by city housing officials, grew out of the difficulties in reconciling the needs of the church with the plans for the Uplands site and the desires of the residents of surrounding communities.

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