Final OK to signal rebirth of Essex site

Balto. Co. Council vote due today on Kingsley Park

August 06, 2007|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN REPORTER

One of the most challenging and expensive urban renewal initiatives in Baltimore County history is poised to move forward today, with county leaders expected to approve a deal with a developer to transform the razed site of a crime-ridden apartment complex into a village of mixed-income housing.

The county would give the 18 acres that had been the site of the Kingsley Park Apartments to a development team under a proposal that must be approved by the County Council. The county would also give the developers $4.1 million in subsidies.

If the deal is approved, construction could begin in December on the first of nearly 200 homes for the elderly and families.

The project is the latest in a series of revitalization efforts on the east side, where aging neighborhoods in Yorkway and Middle River have been leveled in recent years.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said one of his first goals upon taking office 4 1/2 years ago was to rebuild neighborhoods such as Kingsley Park, a World War II-era complex that had deteriorated into a drug haven.

"We're turning something that is a blight into a tax-contributing development," Smith said.

But public spending on Kingsley Park has far exceeded expectations, prompting questions from County Council members. And Smith said the difficulties in finding a developer for the land have led him to consider major changes to a new community-based planning process used for the project.

The county initially hoped to sell the Kingsley Park land. Instead, the government is giving it away - and paying millions of dollars to help the development team of Enterprise Homes and Mark Building meet federal guidelines that require most of the land to be used for affordable housing.

If the deal goes through today, public cost of the project will approach $21 million.

"You're caught between a rock and a hard place on this one," said Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Towson-Perry Hall Democrat. "We need to do what we can to provide affordable housing, and this will do it in an area where it's needed."

Questions remain

Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a north county Republican, said Friday he had many unanswered questions about the deal and had not decided how he would vote.

Plans to redevelop Kingsley Park were announced in spring 2003, six decades after the neighborhood's birth as housing for defense plant workers.

Since the late 1980s, the land had been owned and managed by Landex Corp. under a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that allowed for Section 8 housing on the site. As the neighborhood deteriorated, crime became such a problem that police officers spent up to 400 man-hours a week there, officials said.

Smith announced that Landex would redevelop the property. But the company repeatedly missed deadlines for submitting plans, county officials said then, and the two sides wrestled for months over the property, unable to agree on the project's timing. The county sent code inspectors to the neighborhood and reported more than 150 housing infractions.

In a complex deal completed in September 2004, the county paid $3.46 million to Landex and three adjacent property owners and then $10 to HUD for the land. As part of the deal with HUD, the county agreed to ensure that three-fourths of homes built on the site would be sold to households with incomes below certain levels.

For example, half of the units on the site must be occupied by households earning less than 80 percent of the area's median income - $58,250 for a family of four.

The county spent nearly $2.1 million demolishing the buildings, relocating 300 families, and planning the new neighborhood. And an estimated $11 million was forgiven in state and federal loans that had been owed by the previous owners.

Community say

The site became the first to undergo Smith's planning process centered on community input.

The county hired a design firm that held a series of public hearings known as "charrettes" to plan the future of the neighborhood, and nearly 200 people attended the first meeting. The plan, which includes 78 to 84 rental units for seniors, is so detailed it specifies floor plans and building materials.

County law required that the community plan be followed as a contingency for the sale of the land.

The county officials said they received no acceptable offers for the land.

County officials said they had not anticipated how tough it would be to sell a parcel whose future had largely been determined because of the HUD restrictions and the community plan.

"That's something I wasn't necessarily expecting," said Smith, a second-term Democrat. He added, "They're going to have to be putting these things up pretty much custom-built. That's a challenge."

He said he would consider changing the community-based planning process to avoid the same difficulties with future projects, though he offered no details.

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