Turning A Rundown Neighborhood Around Isn't Easy To Achieve

Part Of Mixed-use Plan For Area Near Hopkins Medical Campus Is 'Kind Of Stuck'

December 21, 2009|By Jennifer Hlad | Jennifer Hlad,Capital News Service

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, smiling women dished out generous helpings of turkey, green beans and sweet potatoes inside the East Baltimore Development Inc. Community Resource Center, as little boys circled the crowded room with trays of lemon cake and pumpkin pie.

Hundreds of people - some dressed in their Sunday best, others in work clothes - squeezed to fit at the dozens of tables covered with yellow plastic tablecloths. Neighbors greeted each other with hugs. Old friends shouted above the live jazz music to catch up on grandchildren.

Outside, many homes are crumbling, lots stand empty and feral cats scrounge for food in the light from nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital. But inside, with the din of a hundred conversations and the aromas of a hearty dinner, there was an unmistakable feeling of community.

"Community" is the objective for the East Baltimore Development project, a $1.8 billion renewal plan that has razed a neighborhood and is now working to rebuild it.

The master plan shows hundreds of homes, a biotech park for the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus, shops and a school. But to create a real community, organizers and experts say, the "new Eastside" must be more than just a cluster of new buildings.

"A community is relationships between people, not relationships between buildings," said Sidney Brower, a professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"The buildings provide a common address, and living next to each other generates common interests. People get together around common interests, so there needs to be a mechanism to help people recognize their common interests and get together."

EBDI was created by Martin O'Malley, then the mayor of Baltimore, in 2003 to revitalize and redevelop the 88-acre area just north of the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. The idea was to "transform over 80 acres of blighted, underused land into a thriving mixed-income, mixed-use community," creating up to 6,000 jobs, according to a state bond bill fact sheet from the project's origins.

Six years in, the project is still in its first phase. A seven-story biotech building opened in 2008 - the only one of five planned biotech buildings to open so far. Three rental properties have opened, offering about 200 rental units, mainly for low-income residents.

And while bond documents said the first phase would include 850 new or rehabilitated housing units, the first townhomes just went on the market.

"It's succeeding in many respects, and in other respects, it's kind of stuck," EBDI CEO Chris Shea said.

Commercial and residential development has stalled because of the economy. But rehabilitation and repair projects are slated to begin soon on nine homes, and EBDI officials expect to break ground this summer on a graduate student housing tower with more than 550 beds.

Many had given up on the neighborhood long before.

By 2003, 70 percent of the homes in the neighborhood were vacant.

Previous redevelopment projects had failed, officials said.

In 2000, the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Committee had been working for more than five years in the area - which used to be known as Middle East - in an effort to save the neighborhood. But houses were being abandoned faster than they could be rehabilitated. The number of vacant houses had nearly doubled in five years, and the organization had rehabilitated only a small fraction of what had been promised.

At the start of the project, the median sales price of a house in the Baltimore area at the time was $220,000, said Shea, but even the best-maintained rowhouses in the EBDI neighborhood were only valued at $30,000.

Still, not everyone was eager to move. Many who remained were reluctant to leave behind the homes in which they had spent so much of their lives.

Residents and EBDI representatives had meeting after meeting as they worked out the relocation packages for residents who were losing their homes.

"It's very, very hard on a lot of people," Shea said, but "you can do that hard work and be firm about it, and at the same time, recognize the hell that you're putting them through."

The project was not the first redevelopment effort in Baltimore, but it may be the most ambitious. While other, smaller, projects failed, EBDI officials jumped into what project officials say is the largest redevelopment project in Baltimore's history, with goals of transforming a neglected slum into a thriving mixed-income neighborhood.

"I get many professionals from across the country who go through here and their jaw kind of drops and they say, 'I've never seen anything like this,' " Shea said. "And that's not anything to be proud of."

From the beginning, he said, the project was designed to allow the original residents to benefit.

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