City to hire armed guards to protect vacant complex

Uplands, due for razing, is site of vandalism, fires

December 29, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The city is hiring armed, private security guards to protect a sprawling, vacant apartment complex in West Baltimore that is slated for redevelopment but has been a magnet for vandalism and fires, including a Monday night blaze.

The Uplands Apartments complex off Edmondson Avenue near the Baltimore city-county line has been vacant for nearly a year, but demolition to clear the site for the city's biggest housing development in decades has been delayed by litigation.

Neighbors and politicians have complained that vagrants and vandals will be continually drawn to the site until the 970-unit, approximately 50-acre complex is torn down. The complex is part of a proposed 100-acre plan to build 1,100 new apartments, homes and condominiums.

"If they can't tear it down, they're doing the next best thing by protecting [the city's] investment" with security guards, said Angela Bethea-Spearman, president of the Uplands Community Association. "It's better than being unprotected."

The city has issued a request for proposals from security firms to provide armed, uniformed guards licensed to carry handcuffs and loaded handguns.

Two guards would provide daily patrols of the site on foot and by car between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., according to the bid specifications. The guards would not have the power to arrest anyone but could detain a suspect until police arrived.

The city's housing department already has three employees watching the complex. In addition, cement barriers and fences have been set up to close off parking areas where people illegally dump trash.

Deputy Housing Commissioner Douglass Austin said the complex has also had problems with fires, floods and break-ins.

A two-alarm fire Monday destroyed the complex's community center, near Edmondson and Swann avenues.

A housing department official said Monday that the fire might have been set by vagrants trying to stay warm in the building. Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said yesterday that fire officials had not determined the cause of the blaze.

Community and political leaders believe vandals have had something to do with fires at the site.

"It's been known that you have vagrants going in there," City Council President Sheila Dixon said.

Councilwoman Helen L. Holton said squatters are undeterred by boards and can find a way into some of the buildings.

Dixon said a security presence at the complex is badly needed but that the courts need to make a decision soon about pending litigation so the city can move to demolish the buildings. Demolition, she said, is the ultimate answer to eliminating security concerns.

"It's an eyesore," Dixon said. "People stop me all the time and say when are we going to tear it down."

Austin said he wants to hire the security guards as soon as possible to protect the property from vandalism, especially illegal dumping. Bids on the proposed contract are due Jan. 19. Austin said the city can't wait until litigation over the relocation of former Uplands residents is settled before providing security.

The Uplands redevelopment plan is facing a challenge filed last year in federal court by former tenants of the low-income apartments who contend that the housing proposed for the site is too expensive to allow them to return.

Three months ago, a federal judge asked officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reconsider the fair-housing implications of the terms of the agency's transfer of the vacant complex to the city, and lawyers for HUD, the city and the tenants have been in settlement talks in an effort to resolve the issue.

Bethea-Spearman agreed with Dixon and said the courts need to act soon, a resolution the city is eager to see as well.

"[Bethea-Spearman] won't be happy until the buildings are demolished, and neither will we," Austin said.

He said hiring the security firm is not a reaction to any specific incidents, but that it is a "natural concern during any large-scale demolition." He also said that the longer the guards must protect the site before demolition begins, the higher the cost to the city.

"Every dollar we have to pay for security and maintenance is money we don't have for development," Austin said.

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