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Objection Overruled

City Awards Project To Connected Developer, Despite Objections From Its Own Advisory Board

Jefferson Jackson Steele
HOWDY NEIGHBOR: Greenspring Trail resident Ben Forstenzer is concerned about the City's proposed development in his neighborhood.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 5/31/2006

Members of the Greenspring Trails Association and residents of the Woodberry neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore say they’re upset over a city official’s decision to hand a major development project to a politically connected company over the advice of the city’s own advisory panel and its assistant commissioner of land resources, Michael Bainum.

“It stinks,” says Ben Forstenzer, a neighborhood resident. “Why is the city paying Bainum’s salary? What’s his purpose if his memos are disregarded?”

Chris Shea, the Baltimore Housing official who overruled the review panel, says he did so because members of the panel erred in choosing a startup company, Baltimore Landmark Homes, over an established developer with a 25-year track record. Shea says the six members of the panel were “very young and very inexperienced” in selling city-owned land for development, and he questioned the policy of placing a representative from the neighborhood association, the Greenspring Trails Association, on that panel. In the future, Shea says, “I want just city [employed] people who actually understand the development process and can reasonably judge what they’re reading.”

The chosen developer, Baltimore-based Savannah Development Corp., issued a statement through a public relations firm, Redzone News Management.

“Savannah was gratified to have been selected as the most qualified of the firms submitting proposals for the development of the Woodberry project,” reads an e-mail from Redzone President Levi Rabinowitz. “We strongly believe Woodberry is an opportunity to enhance a unique neighborhood within the context of a larger community; one reflecting both practical realities and diverse points of view. We look forward to working with the City and the community to complete another award-winning project. You can attribute the quote to Ed Waldman, Exec. VP, Redzone News.”

The project involves about 4.5 acres of city-owned wooded land near Television Hill, a small residential community just north and west of Druid Hill Park. “We’re not rich out here. We’re not Mount Washington folks,” Forstenzer says. Several years ago neighborhood residents recognized that development was coming and resolved to be ready, he says. They spoke with a developer and worked out among themselves what kind of housing they wanted. The neighborhood decided it wanted midsized, detached homes for owner-occupants, built using “green building” technology to save energy and water. The neighborhood also wanted to save as many of the mature trees in the nearby woods as possible.

Forstenzer’s own house burned down just as he was ready to move in 2004, he says. A relatively new company called Baltimore Landmark Homes built him a new home on the spot, including features like bamboo floors and eight-inch-thick walls filled with insulation made from wheat stalks. Baltimore Landmark Homes also bought five other building lots in the neighborhood, with the idea of building a larger “green” home development incorporating the city-owned land.

“They’ve been dealing with the community,” Forstenzer says. “They were sort of consciously creating a link with this neighborhood.”

One of the neighbors is Jefferson Jackson Steele, a photographer who often freelances for City Paper and shares Forstenzer’s concerns.

The city published a request for proposals (RFP) for its 4.5 acres last July, specifying that successful developers would build green. Three companies—Baltimore Landmark, Earthscape Design, and Savannah—submitted proposals. Savannah’s came in after the deadline.

A six-member panel with five city planners and a representative from the neighborhood examined the proposals and scored them according to how well they conformed to the city’s request. The panel voted 5-1 to give the job to Baltimore Landmark Homes, according to the score sheets supplied by Forstenzer.

Among the comments made by review panel members about Savannah’s proposal: “lacking any creativity,” “not particularly open to reducing density,” and “not in keeping with the goals of the RFP.”

The panel did not mention other potential problems with the Savannah proposal. Savannah said that it would invest some $335,000 of its own money in the project, about 6 percent of the amount needed to complete it. But the city’s RFP requires that the developer have at least a 10 percent equity stake (Shea says the 10 percent equity requirement is relevant only for rental properties). Savannah also proposed to build the largest homes, and sell them at the highest cost—more than $400,000 each for the “market rate” homes. Baltimore Landmark proposes selling its market-rate homes for about $350,000. Baltimore Landmark also proposes to build fewer homes on the city’s land. Baltimore Landmark’s proposed profit on the development is $644,000—less than half of the nearly $1.4 million profit in Savannah’s proposal.

Even so, Savannah proposes to pay the city $48,000 less for its 4.5 acres than Baltimore Landmark does.

In a memo dated Dec. 5, 2005, Bainum advised Shea, deputy commissioner for development, that Baltimore Landmark and its partner Consolidated Investment Management Group be awarded the development contract.

Shea did not take that advice. He awarded Savannah exclusive negotiation rights, the precursor to a signed contract. Shea says the higher prices Savannah hopes to get for its homes will increase the benefit to the city, which will collect higher taxes on the properties. Shea says the increased density proposed by Savannah will be better for the city, too. In a letter to Forstenzer, he called the increased density “a smart and appropriate response to regional growth pressures that can preserve affordability and lessen energy consumption.”

Neighbors disagree; they want fewer homes and more trees, to try to maintain the area’s parklike setting. Steele claims he spoke to surveyors working for Savannah several weeks ago, who told him that they were surveying not for 16 homes—the number in Savannah’s proposal—but 30. Steele says he did not get the names of the surveyors or their company.

Baltimore Housing spokesman David Tillman says he has not heard that Savannah may be planning even more homes. But, he says, the company has “got to get that approved by planning and by the community.”

Of course, the community already has made its preferences clear. Baltimore Landmark offered to build on fewer of the city-owned lots, or to trade some of the five building lots it already owns back to the city or a land trust in order to create protected natural areas. Steele says Betty Jean Murphy, president of Savannah, has refused to be specific about her plans. Other neighbors say they don’t want to be seen as attacking Savannah.

“We, the community—we’re not antagonistic against a particular developer,” says Greenspring Trails Association President Kenneth Amanze, who served on the advisory board. “We are, rather, supporting . . . a quaint, serene, rich community. . . . The city should really advocate for us.” (In answer to Shea’s claim that the board was unqualified, he says he has a bachelor’s degree in construction management and technology, and a master’s in architecture, among other qualifications.)

Savannah does have the longest track record of the three companies, and appears to have done many publicly funded projects very well. But one project failure has complicated the Woodberry deal. In 1995 the city of Baltimore bought 10 W. Chase St., a stately commercial building, for $350,000 and put it in Savannah’s name. Savannah was supposed to turn the building into housing for students and low-income people, but did not. Savannah sold the building several months ago for $1.3 million, tax records show.

Murphy and her corporation also have a track record of political donations, according to state campaign records. She has given nearly $12,000 to city and state candidates since 1999, according to those records. More than $4,800 of that has gone to Mayor Martin O’Malley, records show.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office says the city is trying to get Savannah to return city funds from the 10 W. Chase deal but could offer no details. Shea says Savannah has until June 1 to submit a financial report detailing why it should not have to repay the city—both the $350,000 the city paid for 10 W. Chase and the $900,000 or so profit Savannah seems to have made on the building’s sale. He says the Woodberry deal will not be done until the 10 W. Chase matter is “settled.”

The Daily Record reported that Savannah’s lawyer plans to argue that it does not need to pay the city back because it did not profit on that deal.

Brad Rogers, co-founder of Baltimore Landmark Homes, declined to talk to a reporter about the Woodberry development, citing its political sensitivity. Campaign records show he has given $600 to state and local candidates.

Forstenzer says he hopes political pressure from the neighborhood will reverse the award. “I think that this is one that should make them sweat,” he says, “because it’s really bull.”

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