BALTIMORE – The Monday before Thanksgiving was damp and chilly in East Baltimore. But the East Baltimore Development Inc. Community Resource Center was warm and bright.
Smiling women dished out generous helpings of turkey, green beans and sweet potatoes 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 their 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 Thanksgiving 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 then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley in 2003 to revitalize and redevelop the 88-acre area just north of Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. The idea was to “transform over 80 acres of blighted, under-utilized land into a thriving mixed-income, mixed-used community,” creating up to 6,000 new 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 for-sale townhomes just went on the market.
“It’s succeeding in many respects, and in other respects, it’s kind of stuck,” 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.
The East Baltimore Development project was designed to be different.
O’Malley envisioned a life sciences and technology park as an economic engine, but the development also promised parking, restaurants, stores, housing, parks and a new school.
To pay for the $1.8-billion project, O’Malley worked to forge public-private partnerships with the federal, state and city government, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Johns Hopkins Institutions, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.
But first EBDI had to acquire about 2,000 properties — and relocate more than 600 households.
“If you want to redevelop a neighborhood, you can’t rely on willing buyers and willing sellers,” said Chris Shea, CEO of EBDI. “Because … if I’m only able to acquire 30 percent of the block, I can’t save that block. I need to control 100 percent of that block … either by supporting an owner to renovate and reoccupy properly, or by … taking the property and renovating and reoccupying (it).”
The median sales price of a house in the Baltimore area at the time was $220,000, Shea said, but even the best-maintained rowhouses in the EBDI neighborhood were only valued at $30,000.
“Because of the disinvestment in the neighborhood, because of the conditions in the neighborhood, East Baltimore homeowners saw the equity wealth embodied in their homes dissipate to almost nothing,” he said.
Still, not everyone was eager to move. Many of the residents who remained were reluctant to leave behind the homes in which they had spent so much of their lives.
“It’s been raucous. It’s been difficult,” Shea said.
But, he said, hundreds of people simply had to move out.
“I’m one of those who’d argue that it is probably impossible to do something like (this), given the circumstances of East Baltimore, without some radical surgery. And when you engage in radical surgery… you take advantage of that fundamental power imbalance that has come to exist here and you wield it. And you’ve got to not be guilty about that,” he said.
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.”
Under the requirements of the federal Uniform Relocation Act, some of the residents relocated in the first phase were given $155,000 to buy a new home, he said.
Eminent domain laws allow the government to take private property for the public good and pay the owners. In this case, Baltimore acquired houses in the area, then turned them over to EBDI. Many were demolished, while the few that were in good enough shape were slated for rehabilitation.
“The irony of eminent domain in East Baltimore is it kicked people back up into the middle class and overnight gave them a five-fold increase in equity wealth and re-established them in a strong neighborhood,” Shea said.
EDBI also gave residents a $5,000 supplemental benefit, funded by the Casey Foundation and Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, for types of moving expenses that are essential to a successful move but not covered by the federal act, Shea said.
EBDI pays the difference between the real property taxes the homeowner was paying before and what they pay on their new home for three years. And it works to get them enrolled in a state program that caps property taxes based on income.
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.
“There are very few projects…that are starting off with this sort of profound disinvestment that this neighborhood is experiencing,” Shea said. “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.’ And that’s not anything to be proud of.”
But from the beginning, he said, the project was designed to allow the original residents to reap the benefits of the redevelopment.
“If everything else happens the way that we have planned but we don’t have a community, we haven’t succeeded at all,” said Sheila Young, vice president for development and communications for EBDI. “Even as disinvested as this neighborhood was and with all the challenges it had, there were a great number of people who felt a sense of belonging to each other in this neighborhood. And we want to make sure we have that in the revitalized neighborhood that we’re trying to create.”
Rosa Hart Burenstine grew up in a house on Jefferson Street, four blocks west of Hopkins. She said the neighborhood was beautiful and green when her family moved to the area in 1937.
“Everybody loved each other,” she said of the neighborhood. “It was wonderful.”
Middle-class families started to move out, and the area began a slow descent. Burenstine moved away, and when she returned, she was she was shocked at what had happened.
The problem was that anyone who could afford to leave did, said Sally MacConnell, vice president for facilities for Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and an original member of the EBDI board of directors.
“So what was left were elderly people on a fixed income who didn’t feel like they could possibly afford to leave, or quite frankly, people who were involved in drugs, addicted to drugs,” MacConnell said. “There were a lot of vacant houses, and there was a lot of drug activity, there was a lot of crime.”
Reversing the trend was not easy, or quick.
“We knew, even from the beginning, that it was going to be really long project,” MacConnell said.
The first demolitions came in 2003. One of the first people to move was Sharon Tyler, then 55, who had lived in a rowhouse on East Madison Street for 21 years, according to a November 2003, article in The Baltimore Sun.
“It went smooth for me,” Tyler told the Sun. “I feel like I was treated fairly. (EBDI officials) held my hand the whole way.”
The next year, Aldena Gladden told the Sun she was not pleased that she would have to move from the Rutland Avenue home she had lived in since 1957.
“I don’t feel too good about moving at this point in my life,” she told The Sun in February 2004. “I know it’s a good thing for the city. But I’ve lived here for so many years, and I don’t know how I’ll adjust to a new situation. In some ways, I feel like it’s not fair.”
Sherry Ward lived in her home on Rutland Avenue for 14 years, and when she heard about the redevelopment project, she said she didn’t want to believe that she might have to move out of the home where she raised her six children. The 42-year-old mother moved out of her house in January, 2006, with a plan to move back as soon as possible.
Though she has no complaints about the process, Ward is not happy in her new home, and she misses her old neighborhood.
So, would she move back?
“Hell yeah,” she said, laughing.
Ward doesn’t blame EBDI for her problems, and said the neighborhood has changed for the better. She attended the community Thanksgiving dinner this year, just like she did before she moved away.
“By the grace of God, I’m getting back here,” she said. “I loved it here.”
Brower, the urban studies professor, said people tend to want to stay in neighborhoods they are familiar with, even if there are problems.
“People learn to adapt to some extent, and once they’ve managed to adapt, they’re much more comfortable there,” he said. “A lot has to do with social connections. If you live in an area where your friends are, then you like living there, you like the area. If your social network is disrupted, you’ll miss it.”
Though one biotechnology building has opened, the economic downturn pushed back the timeline for further biotech construction, MacConnell said.
Ashland Commons, 78-unit low-income rental property, opened in December 2007. A year later, 55 percent of the units were rented to returning East Baltimore residents, according to EBDI’s annual progress report.
Park View at Ashland Terrace, a 74-unit property for low-income adults 62 and older, opened in October 2007. The East Baltimore Community School opened this year with three grades, and will expand each of the next two years to include pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Quinetta Cooper is one of the new residents in Chapel Green, a 63-unit mixed-income rental community in the neighborhood. She said she loves her new home, which includes an unfinished basement and separate rooms for her two sons.
“I feel safe, I feel protected,” Cooper said.
She moved from Aisquith Street, where her home was infested with mice and her 2-year-old son was sick all the time.
“I had to fight people to get them off my steps,” she said.
At Chapel Green, there is security all day and all night, she said.
“I love it,” she said.
Rodney Dubose has lived in the neighborhood for three years, and has seen definite improvement.
“Drugs and crime have just about settled down,” he said.
Burenstine, a member of the governor’s commission on environmental justice and sustainable communities, said she has started a community garden behind her house on Henneman Avenue. She hopes to keep it all organic, and looks forward to teaching neighborhood children about gardening.
The idea is one of many that may help as EBDI continues to work to build a community because the challenge, Brower said, is bringing people together. EBDI faces an additional obstacle as it works to bring people of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to live in one neighborhood, he said.
“I think the idea of having mixed income is something that many of the (other redevelopment) projects have not done before,” he said. “It’s important they see it as a community-building program rather than just a housing program.”
Shea said the community aspect is a key part of making the project successful — and unique.
“I do think we have to fundamentally differentiate ourselves from other neighborhoods like this. So we have to be very safe, we have to have a very distinctive housing product … it can’t be just another East Baltimore rowhouse.
“We have to have very strong amenities in place,” Shea said, “public spaces, shopping, day care, schools, those sorts of things.” So far, the area has no place to shop — no grocery store, not even a coffee shop.
Shea says those businesses will arrive when more residents do.
The governor is glad the project that has been in the planning stages so long has finally begun to take shape, he said through an aide.
Shea said the project is important not just for the residents, but for the city.
“It’s really important to demonstrate to the city, as a whole, how to do these things. Because the city’s got a number of heroic efforts going on right now, in Park Heights, in Poppleton, in Uplands… This project’s out in front of all that, so this project’s really working hard to set the tone and establish what the right values are, and hopefully pioneer a way for the city to do other projects.”