By Leonard Sparks and Ben Slivnick
BALTIMORE – When April Johnson looks out the front window of her house in Heritage Crossing, she sees rows of red-brick townhouses and neat lawns that define the five-year-old development in West Baltimore. She sees homes with small gardens and doors decorated with wreaths.
But her back window opens to another view: shells of gutted houses, boarded-up doorways, smashed windows. One house, three doors down from her backyard, is missing an entire wall.
When she was deciding whether to buy a house in Heritage Crossing, built along Martin Luther King Boulevard, Johnson said the city promised renewal in the area surrounding the new community.
The city, state and federal government spent $61 million to replace the dilapidated Murphy Homes public-housing project with Heritage Crossing, confident that the creation of a suburban-style neighborhood would bring new investment into the beleaguered community of Upton.
“Our housing plan was to use Heritage Crossing as an anchor and start redeveloping the blocks all around it,” said William Cole IV, the area’s city councilman.
But that hasn’t happened.
Despite the efforts of active, vocal neighborhood associations, Upton is still rife with vacant properties. The failure of efforts to renew the neighborhood is one reason April Johnson has sold new home. And the failure has left residents of Upton still waiting for the change they’ve long been promised.
Four years ago, the city offered a package of properties on Heritage Crossing’s fringes to developers, but the deal fell apart. Al Barry, a former city planner hired to help Upton craft a new master plan in 2003, said Heritage Crossing’s success partly depends on the fate of those properties.
“I don’t think Heritage Crossing and Upton will come together until those buildings are completed,” Barry said. “Until that happens, it’s always going to be a source of complaints with the people who live in Heritage Crossing.”
The view that April Johnson detests is the neighborhood Norma Green calls home.
Green lives on Brune Street, directly across from the new construction of Heritage Crossing. But most of her own block sits desolate. Looking north, most houses are sealed behind weathered plywood.
At the northern corner of Green’s street, a former grocery sits shuttered, its ground-floor windows covered by rusting grating. The house next to the store has been vacant for 20 years, said Green, who heads the Upton West Community Association.
“If you’ve ever lived next door to a vacant home, you know you have higher heating costs because there’s no heat on either side of us,” she said. “You have leaks. You’re fighting rodents.”
These blocks of Upton are bleak. But longtime residents remember times that were even worse.
When the city demolished the George B. Murphy Homes projects in 1999 to make way for Heritage Crossing, many residents cheered the end of the crime-ridden public-housing high-rises that towered over the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Franklin Street.
“I can’t even tell you how many calls of service to the police were made to the Murphy Homes,” said former City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose district included Upton. Ultimately, he said, the crime and drugs from Murphy Homes spread into Upton, clearing out almost entire blocks.
“For those buildings to go down was truly historic,” Mitchell said. “It was the best thing that happened to the city in a long time.”
From the rubble of Murphy’s 781 units rose the 260 townhouses of Heritage Crossing — 185 market-rate houses, 75 rental units for public housing residents. The redevelopment sprang from a nationwide philosophy that concentrated poverty bred social problems and that poor people could benefit from living in mixed-income communities.
Most residents of this latest experiment in urban housing believe it has worked. A University of Maryland urban planning class conducted a study last spring showing that 76 percent of Heritage Crossing residents said it was a good place to live. The study also found that 81 percent of residents said they feel at home in the neighborhood.
“Everyone’s friendly,” said Rosetta Wright, a retired postal worker who bought a home on Myrtle Avenue. “I have everyone’s phone number.”
After living in various apartments around the city, this is the first home Wright has ever owned and she said maintaining it is important. She mows her lawn once every two weeks and even takes care of the neighbors’ yards.
But some homeowners, like Dalia Doreste, have clashed with their neighbors. Doreste said her car has been vandalized and her mailbox and her light post had been tagged with graffiti.
“I don’t go to the park because I don’t want trouble,” Doreste said through an English translator. “I don’t feel comfortable sitting there at anytime — especially not in summer.”
Violent crime is rare in Heritage Crossing, but last week a 14-year-old boy was murdered a few blocks away. According to the University of Maryland report, 50 percent of public housing renters feel safe in the neighborhood at night; 42 percent of homeowners agreed.
April Johnson said the vacant houses that loom on the neighborhood’s outskirts worry her particularly. She said she doesn’t let her daughter play outside because of them, adding that they tarnish the atmosphere within Heritage Crossing.
“It’s fine on the inside, but nothing is happening on the outside in terms of look,” Johnson said. “Right now, Heritage Crossing is sitting in the middle of crap.”
A stolen car ended up on her lawn after a police chase in the summer of the 2004. A back-door window was shot out by a pellet gun.
Several times in the run up to buying the house, Johnson said officials assured her the Upton houses were going to be refurbished — when she signed the contract, at the new homeowners’ classes, at homeowners association meetings.
Indeed, according to a 1997 revitalization plan the Housing Authority of Baltimore City wrote before starting work on Heritage Crossing, “By demonstrating to other developers that it is feasible to redevelop obsolete and concentrated very low income housing into more livable mixed income housing (the housing authority) intends to spur further area development geared to attractive, affordable housing.”
But if renewal comes, it will be too late for April Johnson.
She put her house on the market. Purchased for $87,000 five years ago, it sold for $175,000.
The terms of Johnson’s mortgage prevent her collecting all of her profit until 2013 — terms written to encourage homeowners to stay in the neighborhood and not flip the properties as they gained value.
“I knew what type of paperwork I signed when I got the house. Those are the consequences of the decisions I made.”
Outside Heritage Crossing’s borders, streets once walked by such residents as Thurgood Marshall and Cab Calloway sit decaying, lined by clusters of vacant houses and overgrown lots where houses once stood.
In the early 1970s, Upton became one of several Baltimore neighborhoods to begin a grand urban renewal plan using millions of federal dollars. The plan included 1,000 new residential units, parks and playgrounds and a shopping mall with an adjacent outdoor auditorium.
But the renewal effort eventually stalled, leaving unfinished projects and empty lots in its wake.
Over the following decades, Upton saw little public or private investment, while more popular neighborhoods flourished, said Teresa Stephens, president of the Upton Planning Committee.
“Neighborhoods that had a proximity to areas that were revitalized quickly, like the Inner Harbor and the waterfront areas, received a little bit more attention as far as residential,” she said, referring to such communities as Canton and Federal Hill.
Eventually, a sense of complacency set in, Stephens said, and Upton lost vocal advocates for federal money.
In 2005, the community unveiled a new master plan. It calls for the creation of a mixed-income community by rehabbing existing properties, some as affordable housing. The plan also envisions green spaces and a cultural tourism industry built around Upton’s history.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a former Baltimore housing commissioner, says that money is necessary to bring that plan to life.
“There are two ways of doing vacant houses,” he said. “One is rehabilitating them and selling them to somebody for what it costs to rehabilitate. There isn’t a market there for that. That means that if you’re going to rehabilitate them, you need a subsidy.”
But the economy has soured, discouraging private developers and cutting into government programs that provide incentives.
Hoping to build on Heritage Crossing, the city in 2004 solicited proposals to develop 72 properties to the north and west of the development. The package includes a whole block on Edmondson Avenue that was saved from demolition after Upton residents protested a city plan to create green space for Heritage Crossing.
Apex Baltimore LLC, an arm of a New York City-based developer, won the development rights. The company promised three- and four-bedroom houses with exposed brick interiors, modern kitchen, landscaped rear yards and off-street parking.
But earlier this year, the deal fell apart. Two blocks from Green’s house, on Edmondson Avenue, a “coming soon” sign for the project hangs limply from the face of a vacant building.
The Upton Planning Committee is working with the housing department on a new proposal that will include 20 additional properties. This time, the community is asking that the properties be split among several small developers, said Charles Smith, a project coordinator with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City assigned to Upton.
“Right now, there’s a lack of developers who have deep enough pockets to do something that large,” Smith said. “There’s a number of small developers who are working over there.”
KGC Development LLC is one of those small developers. Using tax credits and their own capital, Andrew Goodman is working with his father, who has renovated five houses on the odd-numbered side of the 1200 block of Argyle Street and have nearly finished three more.
“They were so bad that the roofs were in the basement,” Goodman said. “These homes were rat-infested. There was nobody living in them for quite some time.”
The finished homes, all about 4,000 square feet, boast hardwood floors, Jacuzzis, central air conditioning, stainless-steel appliances and decks. Three have sold for between $387,000 and $352,000, one to a real estate agent from Georgetown and another to an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, the Washington D. C. consulting firm, who lived in Virginia.
“Upton is not your Canton or your Federal Hill neighborhood, but it has the same homes as Canton, but just 100 times bigger,” Goodman said.
A mile and a half from Upton, public and private backers are investing $1.6 billion in the State Center office center, which will be transformed into a mixed-use development complete with housing, restaurants and an open plaza.
“There is this belief that if you have $1.6 billion in investment a couple of blocks up and you have a really bad stretch in the middle, that bad stretch is going to have to improve,” said Cole, the neighborhood’s city councilman. “You can’t have $1.6 billion in investment and not improve the surrounding area.”
The community is also hoping to draw residents through a variety of programs that promote city living to middle-class blacks.
So the residents of Upton have reason to be optimistic. Some believe that renewal is finally about to reach them.
April Johnson is not waiting to see if that happens.
She would like to move closer to her job as an academic advisor at McDaniel College in Westminster — and preferably out of state.
She’s leaving Heritage Crossing — unhappy with the city schools, with the fact that her daughter did not have a yard to play in and with the vacant houses that she confronted each day.
“You live and learn. That’s my attitude,” Johnson said. “I’m just glad I’m getting out now.”