Neighborhood leaders applaud plan for housing

Church relocation to pave way for 1,100 new units in Uplands

September 03, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Community leaders in Southwest Baltimore expressed satisfaction yesterday at the news that New Psalmist Baptist Church is relocating to a Northwest Baltimore business park and that its property would be joined with a sprawling vacant apartment complex to create the city's largest residential housing development in decades.

"I think it's what you call a win-win," said Angela Bethea-Spearman, president of the Uplands Community Association. "New Psalmist appears to be very happy, and we're happy for them."

"We need more homeownership because we need a stronger tax base. At the same time, the church will be able to expand and do the things it needs to do."

William Eberhart, a community leader in Franklintown, agreed.

"I think that's the best possible thing to happen," he said. "The church was landlocked. [The move] provides a lot more developable land. I think it will be a locomotive for the whole west side of the city."

They and other neighborhood leaders joined more than a dozen local elected officials and an equal number of city housing officials yesterday for a formal announcement of the move of New Psalmist to the Seton Business Park in Northwest Baltimore and the unveiling of the master plan for the site of the soon-to-be-demolished Uplands Apartments.

The parcels will provide nearly 100 acres of land off Edmondson Avenue near the Baltimore County line, space for a total of 1,100 units of new housing, with prices of up to $400,000 expected.

The city will pay New Psalmist $16.5 million to relocate: $2.4 million in the value of the land in the city's business park and $14.1 million in cash. The cash will come from a 30-year bond issue, on which principal and interest will be paid from property taxes generated by the houses constructed, city officials said.

The celebratory nature of yesterday's event contrasted with the tensions over what to do with the vacant Uplands complex. The need of the 7,000-member church for more parking seemed to conflict with the community's desire for the maximum amount of housing.

"It's the first time everybody's been smiling at the same time in the same place," said David Dixon, a principal in Goody Clancy, a Boston-based firm hired by the city to head the nearly yearlong planning process for Uplands.

Dixon said in an interview that the church property was in many ways the most desirable of the available land and would enhance the value of the Uplands property. Together, he said, it was an opportunity to create "a whole neighborhood, not just a development."

In describing the plan for Uplands, Dixon said the mature trees at Uplands would be preserved while housing would be built for families, singles and empty-nesters in a wide range of incomes.

"There are lots of people who want to live in the city of Baltimore," he said. "This can be a home to all of them."

The Rev. Walter S. Thomas Sr., pastor of New Psalmist, said the congregation gave a "rousing approval" to the move in a voice vote Wednesday night.

Thomas had asked members of New Psalmist to come to a "special business meeting" and outlined the plan then.

"They were appreciative of the possibilities of what this could do for the city and ecstatic about what it could do for us as a faith community," he said.

Thomas said New Psalmist would seek financing and do fund raising for the approximately $15 million above the city payments that he estimates will be needed for the move, scheduled to be completed by 2010.

City officials briefed businesses and nonprofits in the Seton park Wednesday.

Beyond questions about weekday traffic, several said yesterday they had no objection to the church's relocating to the park.

"The major concern is if there is a lot of traffic during the week," said Kunal Gangopadyay, executive vice president of EBA Engineering.

"We would welcome them as new neighbors," said Linnea Anderson, public relations director of the American Red Cross of Central Maryland. "We would hope we'd be able to work together on issues like traffic and parking."

Paul DiComo, marketing manager for Polk Audio, said the church's presence would be a "departure from the original plan" for the business park, but he added, "We don't have a problem with it."

"We think they'll be wonderful neighbors. What could the downside be?" he said.

He suggested that the city spend some of the additional tax money it would get from the development to repave Northern Parkway, a key artery leading to the business park.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that the housing would benefit not only the surrounding areas but the entire city. "If we are to survive and thrive, we need to grow," he said.

Although the city will not acquire the New Psalmist site for six years, it is scheduled to take over an auxiliary church-owned parcel next year.

On the Uplands Apartments site, the city plans to have the first units ready for occupancy in two years. There will be 696 housing units on the site, including apartments, townhouses and detached homes.

The city bought Uplands from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development in December for $40.

HUD foreclosed on the property in June last year after the private owner defaulted on a federally backed mortgage. HUD complained that the properties had fallen into "deplorable condition," and the federal agency and the city relocated the tenants.

The Uplands Apartments were built as market-rate rental units in the late 1940s on the site of the former estate of Henry Barton Jacobs, an eminent physician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Uplands became a privately managed low-income apartment complex in the early 1970s.

New Psalmist, which has been in existence for 105 years, moved its school to land bordering the complex in 1985. The church itself moved there from downtown in 1996.

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