Holding her ground

She rejected a $250,000 offer to move from her west-side home. UMB built around her instead.

December 20, 2007|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

The last thing she needed was a fight. Darlene Dixon's husband had been dead for only six months and here was a big developer telling her it wanted to tear down her home.

Her neighbors on either side had said yes, agreeing to sell their rowhouses to make way for the University of Maryland, Baltimore's new west-side biotechnology park. Only Dixon, and her house filled with memories, stood in the way.

But the grieving widow held her ground. The developer built around her. And now, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Dixon's little rowhouse rubs elbows with a six-story, 220,000- square-foot biotech building that is home to cutting-edge genome research - an incongruous juxtaposition of Baltimore's past and future.

"I was a little old lady going up against a developer," said Dixon, who, at 51, isn't really so old. The developer not only backed down but built Dixon a new patio and fence, installed a new heat pump, and gave her $2,000 to buy patio furniture and a grill. Walls and windows that cracked during construction were repaired.

"Some people think I was crazy for staying. Some people think I was stubborn," Dixon said yesterday as a mason rebuilt a plaster wall that had been damaged in her living room, still filled with the plants her husband had tended. "But it was none of that."

As development spreads across blocks of East and West Baltimore - just this week a third building for the west-side biotech park was announced - Dixon's story illustrates how urban renewal does not always mean that longtime residents must leave their homes. Sometimes, the high-tech and the historical can be neighbors.

On the city's east side, the Johns Hopkins biotechnology park and East Baltimore Development Inc. have come under fire for clearing dozens of acres for new development and displacing residents. Sensitive to the criticism, EBDI is moving a family this weekend that had been displaced three years ago back into the neighborhood, into a new home built by Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity.

As the University of Maryland expands westward, jumping over Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, it is entering more residential, if rundown, areas. Dixon said drug dealing used to be common on her block, just south of Baltimore Street at Martin Luther King, as were sex acts in cars or in public.

But still, she didn't want to leave her circa-1920 home. Her husband, Henry Dixon, had bought the house in 1995 for about $60,000, after years of saving from his job at the Veterans Administration. In 1999, Darlene met him and moved in. Both had been married before, and Darlene wasn't too eager to marry again.

Henry was a sentimental type, though, and they were married on Valentine's Day in 2002. In March 2004, Henry died of lung cancer at the age of 55.

That fall, a representative of developer Baltimore Street Partners, assembling land for the biotech park, came to her door. He threatened to take her house through eminent domain.

"It made me upset," Dixon said. "But it gave me energy to fight for my house. I was depressed and grieving. It forced me out of my depression."

At first she was offered $150,000. Later, the offer went to $250,000. Even as her neighbors moved out, Dixon wouldn't respond to the offer letters or meet with the developers. But someone from the city also tried to intimidate her, she said.

"They said, `If you don't move, when they start construction, there will be all these rats and they'll get into your house,'" she said. "I said, `Well, we have rats now and they don't get into the house.' "

When the new owner of the biotech park building, Wexford Science and Technology, and the university got involved, they realized that a fight with Dixon would not cast them in the best light and that they could build around her. Over the past two years, the houses on either side of her came down and the shiny six-story building went up. All the while, Dixon stayed in her home.

Wexford says it did not alter design plans to accommodate Dixon, but her house fits snugly inside the right angle of the L-shaped building. The developer did have to get a variance from the city to keep the house on the land.

The construction was noisy and started early in the morning, but Dixon came to like and trust her new neighbor. When construction workers needed to move her car, she would drop her keys down to them from the second-floor window. And now that the building is complete and university police are patrolling the area, Dixon said the neighborhood is safer and cleaner.

"The last thing we want to do is force someone out of their home if they don't want to go," said Steve Hanssen, vice president at Wexford Science and Technology, which is leasing the building to the university and others. On one floor, the university is installing top genome scientist Claire M. Fraser-Liggett and her team.

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