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Mobtown Beat

The Promised Corner

City Bungle Pits Buddhists Against Repair Shop In Tug Of War Over City-Owned Lot

Jefferson Jackson Steele
THIS LAND IS MY LAND: Barbara Apolonio of the Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center is at odds with the city and another local business about the fate of a vacant lot that she has her eye on.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 12/28/2005

In the history of Baltimore, seldom has a single .07-acre patch of weeds and trash been so coveted.

On one side of the battle over this property is Barbara Apolonio, the impresario behind a nonprofit Tibetan Buddhist cultural center and temple, a retail store called Karmic Connection, and a would-be restaurant on the block (“East Meets East Side,” Jan. 14, 2004). Prayer flags drape from the windows of the three connected rowhouses she owns on the 1400 block of East Fayette Street. She and her husband also own a lot across Fayette on which a used-car business operates. She is upset about recent events in a seemingly un-Buddhist way.

On the other side—actually around the corner on North Caroline Street—is Smith Auto Glass, a car-repair institution that since 1961 has repaired and replaced torn and worn convertible tops, windshields, and other automotive problems for the neighborhood and beyond—including vehicles that appeared in the movies Serial Mom, Tin Men, Diehard, and more than 20 others. “We’re good guys here,” co-owner Gary Smith says.

Between the two is 1439 E. Fayette St., the southwest corner of East Fayette and North Caroline streets, owned by the city of Baltimore. City officials apparently promised the lot to Gary and his co-owning brother Fred’s father, Smith Auto founder Leonard Smith, circa 1999. Five years later, other city officials accepted Apolonio’s $35,000 bid for the land, and the Smiths protested.

Now the lot is in limbo, the subject of a suspiciously sudden “multi-agency planning process” that a city official first made public in a Nov. 14 letter to Apolonio.

The impasse defies explanation and has led to hard feelings and a hint of paranoia on the part of both prospective owners of the lot. Apolonio thinks the city is out to get her, citing attempts to condemn her buildings dating to the mid-1990s. The Smiths think a City Paper reporter is out to get them—at least at first. Both would-be developers say they want the lot for parking—because recent changes in the neighborhood have taken parking from them.

“We had to battle the city and the powers that be,” Gary Smith says. “We lost half our lot when Broadway Homes was built” across Caroline Street. That happened a few years ago; the city worked a land swap that gave Smith Auto another parking lot, which had been a community garden, between their shop and the coveted corner lot. The Smiths fenced that middle lot, and it is vacant still.

“He owns that, too, and he doesn’t use it” for parking, Apolonio says. “He’s got parking all up Caroline Street and across the street, so you know he’s lying.” The Smiths say they have not yet got around to paving the lot.

Last summer the city graced East Fayette Street with a new cobblestone central island a few blocks west. There is new pavement and curbs, and a new sidewalk in front of Apolonio’s properties, right where the MTA bus stops. Apolonio thinks the streetscape changes are part of a bid by the city to drive her and the Tibetans away. “I came home, they were putting a parking meter here,” she says indignantly, gesturing to a spot in front of her home and the center.

She says she got the city to remove the meters in favor of residential parking signs and area parking stickers.

By renovating her rowhouses for the Tibetan center, Apolonio has won the respect of the neighborhood, and she has been asking the city for the chance to buy the corner lot since at least 2000, according to correspondence between her and the city. Until at least 2001, city officials told her the lot was betrothed to another. But in October 2004, Apolonio received word that her $35,000 bid for the city-owned lot had been accepted. She planned a small parking pad, augmented with landscaping and maybe a mural celebrating the Tibetan center.

“Once again, I congratulate you for being selected as the developer for 1439 East Fayette Street,” begins the Oct. 28, 2004, letter from city Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano.

The lot has been an eyesore for years, overgrown with weeds and strewn with garbage, harboring rats. Maureen Sweeney Smith (no relation to Smith Auto Glass), executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill, a neighborhood advocacy group, supported its sale to Apolonio in a letter to the city Department of Housing and Community Development’s land resources office last December. For years, Smith says, she has called and e-mailed the city regularly to complain that the lot was unmowed. “As a community leader, this lot is across from my office,” she says. “It drives me crazy. It takes me months to get it cut. I just would like to see it go into somebody’s hands.”

Apolonio expected to close her deal with the city by spring of 2005. But the city stood her up. By last May she was writing the mayor and other officials to get them to the settlement table. “I . . . have done all that is required under the right of entry agreement,” she wrote in a May 26 letter to Mayor Martin O’Malley and Graziano. “However, I find that you are stalling and have not informed me the date of settlement.”

Apolonio says she found out shortly after her bid was accepted that the owners of Smith Auto Glass had called the city Board of Estimates to protest her deal, a time line that the Smiths confirm. The city told her it had promised the lot to Leonard Smith years before Apolonio submitted her bid.

“Barbara [Apolonio] almost got it and I think Mr. Smith got wind of it and said, ‘It’s mine,’” says Maureen Sweeney Smith. “Later I got a call from City Hall. [They said], ‘We kind of developed a glitch here. We found out that somebody else had promised it to Smith, and somebody else had promised it to Barbara.’”

Apolonio says she has not spoken to the Smiths about their budding dispute. “I’m a little intimidated,” she says. “He has all kinds of connections with the city.”

Gary Smith at first says he’s astounded that this dispute might be the subject of a newspaper story and peppers the reporter with questions. “It must be a slow news week,” Smith says. “We’re waiting to see which side the decision falls on. It’s the city. It’s the city of Baltimore.”

In a Nov. 17 letter to Apolonio, Christopher Shea, the city Department of Housing’s deputy commissioner for development, reiterated the nature of the dispute. “Each party now claims some right to purchase the property,” he wrote. “Based upon the information now available to me, I am not able to determine whether either of you has a stronger claim to the property.”

But the city says it has no documentation supporting Smith’s claim, which Fred and Gary Smith say was a handshake deal a city official made with their father long ago. They will not name the official but, Fred Smith says, “we have documents showing that we have been asking the city of Baltimore for this narrow lot for many years.”

Last May, City Councilman James Kraft (D-1st District) wrote Graziano asking for any documentation of Smith’s claim and got none, according to Kraft’s office.

On July 13, Kraft wrote again, this time to David Levy, then deputy commissioner of the city Housing Department. In it Kraft says that, although a promise may have been made to Smith in 1999, “that opportunity expired with the previous administration.” The city put the land out for bid in 2004 and Smith did not respond, he wrote, therefore Apolonio’s “contract should be honored.”

The Smiths say they did send Kraft their old paperwork. “We dug out the papers and we showed them to him,” Fred Smith says. “He said, in that case, a promise is not any good anymore.” He promised to fax those same papers to City Paper (and did fax a six-point fact sheet to the newspaper; among the points: “I remember when I was a teenager, spending time in the shop in the summer, seeing women who had no money to buy groceries for their children and seeing my father discretely hand them cash with no need for repayment”).

But the pair declined to fax their official paperwork, instead allowing a reporter to examine it briefly. They have a November 1999 letter from the city Housing Department to the Board of Estimates, promising to sell 1339-1441 E. Fayette St. to Leonard Smith for $1,500. A later sale agreement, unsigned, changed the price to $2,000. The Smiths say they don’t know why that deal was never consummated.

The Smiths also have a letter dated June 25, 2001, from the city to Khenpo Tsultim Tenzin of the Tibet Meditation Center in Frederick. It says that on March 15, 2001, “it was decided that the city retain ownership of these properties until we reexamine the Fayette Street corridor for redevelopment.” The letter is signed by Walter Horton, development administrator for the Housing Department’s land disposition office.

The Smiths disagree that this letter shows that by early 2001 their deal with the city was dead. “If somebody gets that property, it should be us,” Fred Smith says.

Asked to square the claim that the Smiths have no proof of a deal with the city’s failure to close the sale to Apolonio, city Housing Department spokesman David Tillman says the dueling claims on the property actually have nothing to do with the city’s lack of action. The real key is the city’s planning process.

Indeed, Shea’s November letter to Apolonio continues: “More importantly, this property is located in an area that is currently part of a broad, multi-agency planning effort. The City intends to complete the planning process before deciding whether to sell the property. You and others in the community will be given an opportunity to help shape the plan for this area. I do not, however, want to pre-judge the outcome of that process or lead you to believe that it will result in your purchasing 1439 E. Fayette.”

That broad planning effort is news to Maureen Sweeney Smith, the neighborhood leader. Asked when she heard about the plan, she told City Paper on Dec. 14, “I’m hearing it first from you!”

City Paper searched the Baltimore Department of Planning web site and found no documents or announcements regarding such a planning effort, and calls to Shea and to city Planning Department director Otis Rolley III were not returned before deadline. Tillman had no details on any East Fayette plan either, other than to say the effort began in August 2005—several months after Apolonio’s deal, absent other considerations, should have closed.

So why didn’t the city consummate the transaction last spring? “I don’t have an answer,” Tillman says. “I’m not saying that they communicated with her effectively.” He suggests that Shea, as the new deputy commissioner of development, decided to “take a new look at pending transactions.”

Shea’s start date, though, was Aug. 15—more than two months after Apolonio wrote that she was ready to close.

Apolonio says the city removed its promised residential parking signs on the second week of December, and then put hurdles in the path of a mural she wants to have painted on the side of one of her own buildings. “There is something going on,” Apolonio says. “It’s just that we don’t know what it is.”

The Smiths say they’d like to talk to Apolonio. “We’re appealing to councilpeople,” Gary Smith says. “We’re doing the same thing she’s doing.”

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