BALTIMORE – Chris Shea is in mid-conversation when he suddenly furrows his brow, peering out the window of his corner office.
He has spotted some people at the vacant rowhouse across the street. And, as with everything that happens in this neighborhood, Shea wants to get a closer look.
“Sorry,” he said, when the people move on. “I guess it comes with the territory.”
Shea has been inhabiting that specific territory — the office of the chief executive officer and president of East Baltimore Development Inc. — for about six months.
This month, the redevelopment organization’s board of directors voted to make their interim chief permanent.
He replaces John T. (Jack) Shannon Jr., who resigned in April after more than six years at the helm of the nonprofit organization working to redevelop 88 acres north of Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.
Then-Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley created EBDI in 2003 to manage the biggest redevelopment project in the city’s history. The project plans include 1.1-million square feet of life sciences and technology facilities, restaurants, stores, parking, parks, a school and hundreds of new homes.
The first building in the biotech park opened in spring of 2008, and three new buildings — each offering about 60 rental units — have also opened.
But while most of the renters and homeowners who were living in the neighborhood have been moved out for demolition and rehabilitation, only a handful of sale properties have opened so far.
Shea first came to EBDI about two and a half years ago as the chief real estate officer, moving to the non-profit after three years with Baltimore’s housing department as deputy housing commissioner for development.
Before moving to Baltimore, he served as deputy planning director for the city of Pittsburgh and then director of special projects for the Pittsburgh housing authority.
“I had managed large projects like this before, so, I think this project got to the point where it could use my skill set and experience, and I felt that I could best serve the city by being here rather than in the city,” Shea said.
“And after a lot of years … managing a thousand projects, sometimes it’s therapeutic to come and just have one. I mean, you’re managing a thousand elements of one, but it’s managing one project. So that aspect of it is quite attractive.”
Shea said he talks to the residents every day, whether he’s walking around the neighborhood or in one of the many meetings he has each week. The interaction is key, he said.
“I did this before I was in this office. You have to do that … you have to have your fingers on the pulse of the community,” he said.
The EBDI project has forced hundreds of families to move, with the promise that all that want to can move back.
And in the scores of meetings that residents and staff have attended over the years, he believes it’s important to be honest about any problems.
“It’s not that, ‘I feel your pain’ kind-of nonsense. It’s: ‘I recognize what we’re doing to you. I’m going to do the best I can to mitigate it. I’m not going to pretend we’re not doing it.’ You just have to be straight with people.”
The residents aren’t Shea’s only constituency. He also has to work with the EBDI board, Johns Hopkins officials, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and other private supporters, and the city, state and federal government.
“I think most people might get along with a few of those constituencies, but Chris is really, really good at working with everyone,” said Sheila Young, vice president of development and communications.
Shea began working in Baltimore about six years ago, but he commuted from Pittsburgh for the first year and a half. Now he and his wife live in northern Baltimore County, where they moved so she could continue operating a business in Pennsylvania. They have four adult children.
Shea was born in New Jersey and graduated from the State University of New York’s Brockport campus. He earned his master’s degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Pittsburgh.
Shea said he originally pursued planning because it was closely aligned with his wife’s field — architecture. He got into urban redevelopment because of the atmosphere in Pittsburgh at the time, he said, the civic recognition of its importance.
“You had the opportunity to be successful and make a difference,” Shea said.
Shea had worked with EBDI when he was in Baltimore’s housing department, but said he hadn’t realized how good the organization’s family advocates and acquisition/relocation teams are.
“There are some teams in this organization that are probably the best in the country at what they do,” he said. “I hadn’t recognized that from the outside. We’ve relocated 800 families in five years. There hasn’t been a single lawsuit.”
Shea said he also was initially surprised at “the absolute, the extraordinary level of disinvestment” in the neighborhood.
“Most of my work prior to this was in public housing, where the poverty levels are really (high),” he said. “But it’s not like you have a 70 percent vacant neighborhood and the buildings have been abandoned for 30 years (like EBDI).
“In that context, the people who stuck it out are really courageous and hopeful and optimistic people. I mean, this could wear you down. I guess you have to have a certain resistance and a certain optimism and a certain faith if you’re able to stick it out. So there are really remarkable people in this neighborhood.”
Shannon, the original CEO, was recruited by the EBDI board of directors from the University of Pennsylvania. He had “a tremendous amount of energy” and a law background that was perfect for the period when the project was dealing with so many relocations, said Sally MacConnell, a member of the board and vice president for facilities for Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System.
But after six years, the project was changing, and it was time for him to go, MacConnell said.
“It was fortuitous that Chris came into it for residential development. Now that is coming to the fore, and that is Chris’s area of expertise,” she said. “It is, to a large extent, not just building houses, but the idea of building a community.”
There are some things that Shea said he would change if he could: Most specifically, he would start building homes for sale — rather than rentals — from the beginning.
“We are trying to establish a viable neighborhood housing market,” he said. “We put three rental elements up before we put any for-sale elements up. And that was just not strategic, and it just didn’t make sense.
“A homeowner is going to come here … and say, ‘This place is full of low-income rental. If I make an investment in this house, how do I know it’s going to appreciate?'”
Shea says he faces many challenges, not the least of which is the economy.
“I think we have to deal with the fact that, going forward, we’re going to be in a very different economy. I mean, everything crashed. It will come back, but it will come back in a different way,” he said.
In the coming months, EBDI needs to finish the public infrastructure, sell the retail units that have been built and finish moving residents and acquiring their property, Shea said. There are about a dozen homeowners and about 50 renters whose homes EBDI still has to buy, he said.
“We just really have to be smart during this market downturn, focus on what we can get done (and) be adult about what we can’t get done because of the market,” he said.
Shea’s office is cluttered with stacks of binders, the only items hanging on the wall left over from the previous occupant. He spends more time looking out the windows than at the walls.
But he does have one personal item: a murky Pittsburgh snow globe.
It plays the theme song from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”