A new start to revival for Johnston Square

City hopes core corridor project can spark wider renewal

September 25, 2006|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,sun reporter

The interior walls and ceilings of the rowhouses have been roughed in but not covered. A few pipes are in place, though no water runs through them. Insulated wires dangle, evidence of the beginning of electrical work. On the floors, leftover construction material - air ducts, insulation - shares space with empty cartons of pizza and Chinese food and beer bottles and soda cans.

In the early 1990s, Baltimore's Housing Authority set out to create 20 public housing units in abandoned rowhouses just south of Green Mount Cemetery and a few blocks away from the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, better known as Supermax, in the troubled Johnston Square neighborhood on the near east side.

Only 10 of the units were completed; work was started, but never finished, on the other 10, located in four buildings.

Now, more than a dozen years after the work was begun and a decade after the city pledged to complete the project as part of a partial settlement of a long-running civil rights lawsuit, the city is moving to finish the job - and to renovate 23 other vacant city-owned rowhouses nearby.

The hope is that returning the properties to productive use will help revitalize a core corridor and herald the beginning of a wider community renewal.

Late last month, city housing officials held a meeting for potential developers of the properties along a three-block stretch of East Preston Street and on Homewood Avenue and opened up the unfinished three-story buildings and a couple of others for inspection. They set a Sept. 29 deadline for receiving bids.

Officials said at the meeting and in subsequent interviews that the Housing Authority would pay for the renovations to the four buildings with the 10 public housing units, and would continue to own and manage them. They said they would sell the other properties to developers at market value, to be renovated and preferably resold to homeowners, probably with some sort of city subsidy.

They say they are moving ahead now because of their determination to comply with the consent decree, the proximity of the area to the nearby Station North Arts District and the continuing strength of a cluster of modest homes fronting on East Preston Street that were built about 20 years ago.

"This collection of properties is in a very good location, and we believe the time is ripe for redevelopment," said Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano. "I view it as just the beginning of activity."

"The bottom line is: Johnston Square's a neighborhood we're committed to," Graziano added.

Few would argue that the neighborhood, across the Jones Falls Expressway from the much more upscale Mid-Town Belvedere, needs something.

In the 1990s, population in Johnston Square declined by roughly a third, while the number of vacant houses grew by about the same percentage. In the census tract that includes the 700, 800 and 900 blocks of E. Preston St., the median household income in 1999 was $16,076, just over half the citywide median, and the poverty rate was over 40 percent. Outside the rear windows of the partly renovated East Preston Street rowhouses, the gravestones at the cemetery are clearly visible across a vast vacant lot where dilapidated houses once stood.

While some welcome the city's plan, others express reservations - at least about parts of it.

"It's a good thing," said Betty Rogers, director of the Johnston Square Community Development Corp. "You can see we have a lot of vacancies and stuff in the neighborhood. It'll be great to have some of them back in working condition. Maybe some of the residents who have moved away will come back to the community."

Tony Richards, a 40-year-old clerk in an auto parts store who rents a house off East Preston Street, says he hopes the project will not only decrease the number of vacancies in the area but also provide jobs for people who sorely need them.

"There's a lot of people looking for work," he said. "If they need to hire people, they won't have no trouble finding people."

But two homeowners who live in the 800 block of E. Preston St., across the street from the four buildings with the partially completed public housing units, have a different view of what needs to be done.

"They need to tear down the whole block," said Charvette McLaurin, 36, a physical therapist who lives with her 10-year-old daughter. Pointing to a vacant house in the middle of the block that is not city-owned and not on the list of properties to be renovated, she said squatters lived there for several years before police ran them off.

"I really think they need to tear them down," agreed Ann Pitts, 35, a nursing assistant who lives with her three children, ages 16, 10 and 8. "They're using them as stash houses."

After listening to housing officials talk about pushing the market higher with houses selling at $150,000 or more, Eric Goods of the nearby Greenmount West Community Development Corp. worried that too many residents might be priced out of the market.

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