Block unites for victory in zoning case

Stable enclave in failing area sends message to city about renewal effort

Sun follow-up

December 06, 2006|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun reporter

With its neatly kept red-brick rowhouses, decorative storm doors and sidewalk planters, the 2000 block of E. Lanvale St. stands out in an area of East Baltimore where about half the properties are vacant, boarded-up buildings and empty lots.

Harvey Wilkerson, a retiree who has lived there for 40 years, says he knows why the block has been able to retain its character while so many streets around it have deteriorated.

"I think it's because we all work together," said Wilkerson, 76, one of a number of elderly homeowners who have lived for years on the block. "We all live like a family. When someone is not able to clean up, we all clean up."

Late last month, many residents of the block, supported by neighbors nearby, were working together again - not on their street but at City Hall.

They appeared en masse at a zoning board hearing to oppose an application by the influential, 2,000-member Southern Baptist Church to turn a vacant, church-owned rowhouse on the block into a multipurpose service center. Church representatives said the project would offer help in a number of areas, including job-readiness training and counseling for relatives of AIDS patients.

After listening to residents express fears that the center could bring traffic, trash and loitering to a block they worked so hard to maintain, the board voted unanimously to reject the church's appeal for a zoning change that would have allowed it to open.

The 2000 block of E. Lanvale is around the corner from the long-vacant American Brewery complex, which is slated to be renovated as the local headquarters of a nonprofit social services agency.

Both are in a 20-square-block area that was the subject of a two-part series published in June in The Sun. Titled "A Neighborhood Abandoned," the series described life in a community that over the years has lost 60 percent of its population and most of its businesses, and been largely bypassed by efforts at renewal. It identified the Lanvale section as the "most attractive block in the area."

Since the series, the city has applied for a state grant to help demolish one of the most deteriorated blocks in the area, where only a handful of properties are occupied, and it has moved to acquire about 200 abandoned properties around the brewery.

The zoning case illustrates that despite the neighborhood's overall need for investment and services, there can exist competing visions of how - and where - to proceed.

Eric Booker, a community leader in the area who was among those opposing the center, said the zoning decision sends a wider message to those who live in the long-neglected neighborhood of the impact of civic engagement. It's also a signal to others that residents still need to be brought on board before projects are undertaken, notwithstanding the area's widespread decay, he said.

"It may look like a dead zone, but there is a concern within that dead zone," said Booker, who heads the city's housing inspection division and has been working for the last decade to revitalize the area. He grew up nearby in his grandparents' house at Lanvale and Washington streets.

Paul D. Shelton, an attorney for Southern Baptist, said the day after the hearing that the church had yet to decide whether to appeal the zoning board's decision to the Baltimore Circuit Court.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "Obviously, we'd like to do the project. I think it would be a good thing for the community."

While it hasn't been around as long as Harvey Wilkerson or some of the other residents of the 2000 block of E. Lanvale, Southern Baptist is hardly a newcomer.

Southern Baptist moved from Preston and Bond streets in 1972 into its current building on what had been vacant land at one end of the 2000 block of E. Lanvale. It was instrumental in one of the few new projects in the area in the last 30 years: a $12 million senior center and housing complex across from the brewery building.

Mayor Martin O'Malley described the church in the spring as one of the "strong anchors" in an area that he acknowledged "seemed to be a no-man's land" to many. O'Malley appointed its pastor, the Rev. Donte L. Hickman Sr., to the board of the city's Housing Authority, which oversees public housing programs.

Hickman declined to comment after the hearing and did not return a call seeking comment after the decision was announced.

However, in an interview last year and a subsequent e-mail, Hickman said the church put more than $60,000 into renovating the property. Southern Baptist bought the former residence and beauty salon across the street from the church compound five years ago for $20,000.

The church seeks to reach beyond "this one beautiful block" to provide resources for people suffering from AIDS/HIV and drug abuse, he said. "The church wanted to take some action to helping those persons adopt to the mainstream."

During the zoning hearing, Shelton made much the same point.

"The block - and it's a great block - is not the whole community," he said.

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