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Unbuilding Community

East Baltimore Residents Fret as Residential Construction Sputters in Biotech Project

Jefferson Jackson Steele
SMEAC members Johnny Coleman and Ada williams are upset that new homes are not yet being built for former residents of the neighborhoods around the East Baltimore Biotech Park.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 10/22/2008

Pastel banners along Washington Street, the main artery that leads into the site of the East Baltimore Biotech Park, proclaim optimism about how the project will impact the area: my new east side is clean, announces a sign bearing an image of a father hoisting his child up in the air. my new east side is entertaining, another states.

But the landscape surrounding the signs--fenced-in vacant lots, scabbed earth resulting from the demolition of entire city blocks, crumbling rowhouses being shored up by construction crews--illustrates the reality of what life in the neighborhood is right now. To some frustrated residents, it appears that the project is stalled, and they wonder if they will ever get to take advantage of the clean and entertaining east side, touted as a neighborhood developed for the rich and poor alike, that has been promised to them.

The project, the planning of which began in 2001, is a work in progress. When it is complete, the biotech park and its environs, an 88-acre portion of the city dubbed the "New Eastside" by proponents and developers, are expected to contain 2,100 new and rehabbed homes for people of various incomes, a new kindergarten through eighth-grade school, lots of new retail space, and pocket parks. According to East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), which is spearheading the project, the biotech park is expected to create 8,000 new jobs, two-thirds of which will be directly linked to biotech projects.

But right now, things appear to have slowed down. During Phase I of construction on the biotech park, which began in 2002, EBDI moved hundreds of families in neighborhoods plagued by crime and poverty out of their rowhouses, which were purchased using eminent domain, and temporarily relocated them to neighborhoods around the city with the promise that they would have the opportunity to return to live in a newly constructed or rehabbed home when the project was complete. During the most recent phase of the project, remaining residents are hoping their homes will be spared demolition, and that they can obtain assistance from the developers to rehab their houses so they can remain in the neighborhood. Construction crews have descended on the neighborhood to rehab rowhouses in the area, but those homes are not owned by residents; they are the homes that will be sold at market rates or rented to new families who want to move to the area.

Leaders of the community group that has long acted as a voice for those residents, Save Middle East Action Coalition (SMEAC), say developers have broken their promise to build 20 new homes in the residential portion of the project by the start of 2009. Those homes were supposed to be part of a mixed-income community that would give people whose homes were demolished a chance to move back to (or remain in) the community. The first five of those houses were supposed to be complete by the end of September, but so far building has not begun. SMEAC questions the developers' ability to create this New Eastside.

"If they can't pull together these measly houses for the housing program . . . they should just apologize to the residents for ruining their neighborhood," says Nathan Sooy, SMEAC's executive director. "And for the sections of the neighborhood that are still whole, they should leave them alone."

Residents say they were taken in by catch phrases like "a house for a house" and a "right of return" for the displaced, but as time goes on, they grow skeptical. SMEAC says the project is showing itself to be just like other urban-renewal schemes that pushed out poor people whose land became valuable to developers.

"I feel like we've been lied to," says Larry Cooper, a lifelong resident of Middle East who is hoping that EBDI will let him stay in the neighborhood and fix up his home, rather than relocate him. "We go to meeting after meeting, and all they're doing is pacifying us. `Oh, we're going to do this, oh, going to have that done.' But in reality, when it comes down to getting the job done and presenting something to us, we haven't seen a thing."

SMEAC members point out that the $57 million University of Maryland BioPark in Southwest Baltimore, a large portion of which was completed this year, was built in less than two years.

"Where's the energy level? Where's that commitment to the community, that `I want you to stay here'?" asks Donald Gresham, president of SMEAC and an area resident who hopes he will be able to remain in his home. "So I am offended that everywhere, all around me, is being built, but I can't get nothing. And I've been here all my life."

EBDI is urging patience. John "Jack" Shannon, president and chief executive officer of EBDI, says the miserable real-estate market and hobbled economy have slowed progress on the biotech park. He says the project is currently in better stead than many other commercial ventures because it has money coming in from a variety of sources--foundations, city and state government, Johns Hopkins--that have in interest in making sure the high-tech campus succeeds. He acknowledges the community group's frustration, saying that EBDI has "got to show tangible signs of progress" and give people an idea of "what the future will look like in East Baltimore."

"SMEAC is definitely right, we've got to get a model up as soon as possible," he says.

Since its beginning, the East Baltimore Biotech Park has been held up as a new kind of project that takes into account the socioeconomic welfare of the neighborhoods it touches. The goal is to create a high-end business campus using the rich reserves of the neighboring Johns Hopkins medical campus while rebuilding and revitalizing the poor communities surrounding it. By 2006, EBDI helped move 390 families from their homes to clear 31 acres for a biotech building, senior-housing complex, and rental units. EBDI assured the displaced residents they were being relocated from their ailing urban environment for their own good--they were moved into new homes, mortgage free, and EBDI helped them find new jobs and child care in their new neighborhoods. EBDI also promised that relocated residents would be given the opportunity to return to their old neighborhoods when the residential portion of the project is complete ("Moved and Shaken," Feature, Feb. 22, 2006).

Bringing some credibility to the developers' promises was the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, which funds projects that empower low-income neighborhoods. Annie E. Casey helped pay for counselors to help residents adjust to their new lives and it provided funding to SMEAC. It also raised more than $65 million for the biotech project, and Doug Nelson, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation, sits on the board of EBDI.

Tony Cipollone, senior adviser for Annie E. Casey's development projects in Atlanta and Baltimore, says the goal of the New Eastside project has not changed. "We want to have as many residents who want to stay have the opportunity to do so," he says. "That is going to be the hallmark of whether this project is considered a success."

Shannon says things were different in Phase I of the project. The economy was doing well, and it was much easier to make progress, so things moved more quickly. The crash in the real-estate market shut down the rehab trade, he says, which has made it difficult to find large crews to gut and rehab rowhouses for EBDI. Shannon says EBDI is close to finding a contractor to begin on the residential portion of the project, but he cannot say for certain when construction will start.

"Within the last several days we are greatly encouraged," he says. "We're about to turn a corner here, although every morning when I wake up and read The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, they have a way of tempering my enthusiasm."

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