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Quick and Dirty

Don't You Be My Neighbor

Middle East Neighborhood Organization SMEAC Boycotts Hopkins Biotech Park

Frank Klein
Mayor Sheila Dixon (bottom left) was among those gathered to celebrate the Hopkins Biotech park on April 27.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 5/2/2007

The corner of Ashland Avenue and Wolfe Street had all the makings of a high-rolling economic development tent revival April 27. Major politicians, including U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and Mayor Sheila Dixon, were there, as were lots of local developers, bankers, nonprofit organizations, and a preacher. Those who spoke declared that the seven-story biotech building being constructed in the background, the first of five life-sciences buildings that will be constructed in the area, represented the second coming of this East Baltimore neighborhood, much of which has been plowed under to make way for 2 million square feet worth of biotech facilities and 950 associated housing units ("Moved and Shaken," Feature, Feb. 22, 2006).

A large portion of the community abstained from the euphoric celebration, however. Those who band together under the Save Middle East Action Coalition (SMEAC), an organization that's been negotiating with developers on behalf of residents displaced by the East Baltimore Biotech Park, boycotted the event and passed up the opportunity to sign a girder that would be hoisted to the top of the building amid much fanfare that day. Some 396 households were moved from the neighborhood through eminent domain to make way for the park, which has been touted as a national model for revitalizing communities beset by drugs and disinvestment. Though supporters of the biotech construction say the project will spawn new housing, jobs, and retail in what has long been an economically devastated area of the city, the members of SMEAC feel that the people who have lived here for years are being pushed out, unable to share in the promised revitalization. One third of the 950 homes being constructed as part of the project will be reserved for lower-income housing, another third will be earmarked for police officers and nurses, while the last third will be sold at market rate.

"This is bigger than us," Rep. Cummings said at the event. "We'll be in heaven, hopefully, but our children and children's children will be benefiting [from this]."

SMEAC President Donald Gresham, however, describes the April 27 ceremony not as one that marks hope for the future, but as one that marks "the death of a way of life."

"Saying the community celebrates this, that's just one-sided," he says. "We want them to know this is not what the community wanted."

Of the roughly 200 people gathered for the celebration, only about a dozen were actual residents of the Middle East area. And those residents were from the 800 block of Washington Street, where residents managed to negotiate a deal in which they would not have to leave their recently rehabbed homes to make room for the biotech development.

Over the years, negotiations between the project's developer, East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), and SMEAC have been difficult but productive. This standoff marked the first openly contentious point between the two organizations since SMEAC first drew publicity with a small demonstration five years ago. SMEAC's specific complaint about EBDI right now is that the organization estimates it will cost around $250,000 (maximum) to buy low-income housing in the biotech park area--an amount that, without considerable subsidies, puts the housing units out of reach for the poor. Residents are feeling very isolated from project right now, Gresham says.

In an interview after the April 27 ceremony, EBDI President and CEO Jack Shannon says that EBDI is working out a formula where returning residents could apply the benefits they received to make up for relocating their homes, which averaged around $150,0000, against the $250,000 price tag. Then a shared equity fund would reduce the mortgage payment for the housing units to make sure that payments would equate to about one-third of a buyer's monthly salary.

"If there is a gap, we're going to fund it," Shannon says.

Nathan Sooy, executive director of SMEAC, says that strategy does not create affordable housing--it creates subsidized housing. He says the project's main focus seems to be to build "a little company town for Johns Hopkins."

"Can EBDI's model of affordable housing really work if the person coming in didn't have $150,000 in their pocket?" Sooy asks

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