A testy reception for new East Baltimore plans

Residents wary of huge project, which would include a new park and school — and name

  • The rendering shows the park proposed for the East Baltimore redevelopment area, which consultants propose be called Beacon Park.
The rendering shows the park proposed for the East Baltimore…
July 28, 2011|By Frank D. Roylance, The Baltimore Sun

Scott Levitan, development director of the 88-acre redevelopment project north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, was ready Thursday night to present area residents with new ideas for the project — a new park, a new school, a grocery store and other amenities designed to breathe fresh life into the slow-moving development to make it a better place for them to live and for the new residents he seeks to attract.

But he was stopped in his tracks.

In a meeting that lasted nearly two hours, more than three dozen residents politely but firmly vented long-held suspicions of Hopkins and of the process that has razed most of their neighborhood and relocated its residents.

And they voiced their impatience with Levitan's employer, Forest City East Baltimore Partnership, because they felt they were being handed something that had already been decided — without them.

"We're the low man on the totem pole," said Johnny Coleman, a member of the Middle East Truth and Reconciliation Council, a community group set up to deal with the developers. "We're gonna get what they give. This group has been screwed royally. The die has been cast."

Levitan tried to say that the meeting was just the beginning of a process of soliciting community input about the recommendations. But when he began to describe the surveys and focus groups used to inform the proposed master plan revisions, the meeting began to unravel. Almost no one in the room had been asked to participate and no one had seen the results.

"A lot of people are hostile because they haven't been made familiar with this survey," said Nia Redmond, who leads the Truth and Reconciliation Council. "In the future, I think you all need to do a better job of communicating."

In the end, Levitan agreed to send residents paper or electronic copies of his firm's recommendations, and the residents agreed to return in two weeks to ask questions — and to be heard.

"We're tired of being talked to," Middle East resident Phyllis A. Hubbard said.

Community suspicions are not the only headwinds the project has encountered since it began in 2002. Described by the developers as the largest redevelopment project ever undertaken in Baltimore, at an estimated $1.8 billion, it also has been hobbled by the recession, the housing meltdown and, not least, perceptions among prospective residents that East Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood is a dangerous place to live.

Almost 400 families were moved from the area as its old row houses were razed beginning in 2004. But only 219 of the planned 1,500 to 2,000 new or renovated housing units have been completed, most of them senior or rental housing. Only two market-rate residences have been purchased, Forest City says.

On the commercial side, just one of two research laboratory buildings planned for opening by 2010 has been built. It is 85 percent leased, but tough financing conditions and a changed bio-medical research industry have delayed and altered plans for further development, according to the developer. Of the thousands of permanent jobs originally promised, only about 400 have materialized.

But Levitan, in an interview, remained upbeat.

"As miserable as the recession was for everybody, it actually presented an opportunity for us all to … figure out what was working and what wasn't and possibly recalibrate where we wanted to go," he said.

Elected leaders briefed on Forest City's recommendations seemed cautiously optimistic about them in interviews before Thursday night's meeting.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the 12th District, said area residents were disappointed that so little of the new housing promised residents had been built.

"It did seem in some ways to not honor the commitment that people thought they had," said Stokes, who acknowledged friction between the local community and Hopkins.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young also said the community was unhappy about the slow pace of housing construction. But he said he was encouraged by the new plans.

"They want more housing, and we're going to push that," he said, adding that he was also happy about the school that is planned.

"Once complete [the project] will be the new East Baltimore we all want — safe, clean and affordable," Young said. "Everybody can live in this environment — incomes of all levels living together."

Christopher Shea, CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit established by the city in 2002 to guide the project, said he's gratified that the new "civic amenities," including the school, have become clearly defined anchors for the next stage of development.

Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, also applauded the new recommendations.

"As community leaders and residents consider these proposed changes, it is important they know that the amenities — the park, the new school, the market — are for them as much as they are for new residents."

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