For Better or For Worse
The divided Community of Waverly Grapples With the Pain and the Promise of Changes Along 33rd Street
Waverly was, until 1991, the place where all of Greater Baltimore flocked to watch the Colts or the Orioles play. Today, lovers of local produce think of Waverly as the scene of the 32nd Street Farmers' Market. Along Greenmount Avenue and its 30-something cross streets , a hodgepodge of businesses--Thai Restaurant, Bode's Food Store, Normals Books and Records, Pete's Grille--shore up the public image of Waverly as a quaint urban village where Baltimoreans of all colors and classes live and work in funky harmony.
Strictly speaking, however, neither the stadium site nor the farmers' market is located in Waverly proper--and the neighborhood's image is misleading in other ways as well. While the areas flanking 33rd Street east of Greenmount enjoy relative harmony among ethnic and social groups, Waverly north of 33rd Street doesn't get along very well with Waverly south of 33rd Street. And despite the area's village-like identity, its boundaries are weakly defended against the ills--and the official good intentions--of the city at large. For 30 years, the community has dealt with continual outside pressures, from the periodic invasions of sports fans to the slow infiltration of drug culture, from the depredations of bad landlords to the grand schemes of city planners.
Through it all, neighborhood leaders on both sides of Waverly's great 33rd Street divide have developed a sort of prickly pride--even, in some cases, a siege mentality. For them, Waverly has become more than just a place to live: It's a cause, a proving ground for visions and values that are sometimes at odds with business-as-usual in Baltimore. They generally agree on the ideal of a lively, diverse urban community, but opinions can vary bitterly on how to achieve that goal. Now, as major new developments are planned on Waverly's east and west flanks, the community's divisions--and its passions--are thrown into stark relief.
About a year ago, the wrecking ball leveled the last scraps of Memorial Stadium; less than two months ago ground was broken for Stadium Place, the mixed residential and recreational complex that will replace the old sports palace. The coming year will bring more big changes: On the northeast corner of 33rd and Greenmount, a brick-clad BP gas station, complete with quasi-trendy coffee shop, will replace a dingy Amoco and the vacant hulk of what used to be Uncle Lee's Szechuan Restaurant. And across 33rd, between Old York Road and Frisby Street, a 60,000-square-foot Giant Food store will break ground in the spring of 2003, belatedly replacing a run-down SuperFresh grocery that closed early in 1999. Twenty residential structures, including a number of late-19th century houses and a small apartment building, will be demolished to make way for the Giant's 274-place parking lot.
Reactions to the oncoming changes along 33rd Street range from glee to gloom. Debates over the stadium site began in the 1980s and may never stop rumbling, although the matter was officially settled in 1999, when Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO) won city approval to develop the site. GEDCO's project, to be built in stages, will include up to 500 residences for senior citizens, plus a YMCA and a playground. Although the GEDCO proposal was favored by all of the recognized community organizations that took part in the debate over the site, some in the area still complain that a mixed-use industrial or commercial scheme would have employed more local people, compensating for the hundreds of blue-collar jobs and vending opportunities lost when the Orioles fled the coop.
Emotions run particularly high over the Giant Food project, not only because of its expected physical impact, but in response to the fast-tracked process by which it won official approval. While there's a hearty consensus that Waverly is in dire need of a grocery store, many residents south of 33rd Street feel betrayed by city officials who they say railroaded the project with little regard for the immediate neighborhood.
On Dec. 18, the city's Board of Estimates approved spending $700,000 for new public infrastructure at the Giant Food site, plus $550,000 for "acquisition and other project expenses"--outright subsidies, project critics say, for Vanguard Equities Inc., the company that is developing the site for lease to Giant Food.
"I love the way our elected officials are using our money to undermine our community," scoffs 29-year Waverly resident Laura Malick. An active member of the Better Waverly Community Organization (BWCO), which represents the neighborhoods south of 33rd Street, Malick is one of the Giant plan's bitterest critics. Referring to Vanguard Equities' president, she says, "Leonard Weinberg got the gold mine, and Waverly got the shaft."
Malick and other BWCO activists most vehemently object to the planned demolition of four houses on the western end of Gorsuch Avenue to make way for parking. For BWCO's leaders, who feel that their neighborhood's signature Victorian houses and century-old trees are among its greatest assets, the Giant plan is an act of desecration. "These are the jewels of the neighborhood," declares Paula Branch, the BWCO's unofficial historian, "they wouldn't go into Canton and take its best buildings."
But BWCO's criticism, voiced at hearings and meetings throughout 2002, is not endorsed by all who live in the section of Waverly the organization represents. "The Giant will help with crime and will help restore some commercial viability to the Greenmount corridor," says Joe Stewart, who lives on Avon Avenue, a few blocks east of the grocery site. "It will bring people from all the neighboring communities. It'll be a place for people to say hello to each other. Stewart, a state attorney with a long history of activism on health and environmental issues, was so enthused by the prospect he got 20 of his immediate neighbors to sign onto a letter urging approval of the Giant scheme.
While Stewart describes himself as having been a "passive participant . . . a foot soldier" in BWCO's earlier development battles, Stewart now finds himself--to his puzzled surprise--in an opposing camp. "I would never have guessed in a million years that I'd be the spokesperson for a supermarket, that I'd be closer to Len Weinberg than to [BWCO's leaders]," he marvels, "but I saw the need to partner with commercial developers, not alienate them." Puzzled by the BWCO's hostility to what he sees as a desperately needed improvement, Stewart suggests that the present leaders "may be stuck in a rut."
One resident who signed Stewart's petition was Bryon Predika, who lived until recently in one of the "jewels" of Gorsuch Avenue. Faulting BWCO's "confrontational" posture, Predika waxes sarcastic: "There was no way they were going to allow the Giant to destroy these graceful, wonderful mansions. [But] if they were so wonderful, why wouldn't anyone buy them and renovate them? Nobody wanted to pay the taxes or rake the back yards--they just wanted to look at them." When, in 2002, Vanguard Equities offered to buy Predika's house to make way for the new Giant, he promptly accepted the offer and has since moved to Hamilton.
Across 33rd Street, feelings about the Giant plan are understandably less complicated. "Hurray, hurray, hurray!" says Earleen Henderson, former president of Waverly Improvement Association (WIA), which represents the northern side of the boulevard, adding "People need a place to shop." In other regards as well, WIA leaders these days are generally happier than their Better Waverly counterparts.
"I see a modest improvement in the quality of life in the area," says WIA president Myles Hoenig, giving credit to city's "311" program, which has quickened official response to nuisance crimes, and to the O'Malley administration's CityStat program, which tracks a wide variety of neighborhood problems and seeks to coordinate the city's responses. "I still see a lot of boarded-up houses, but I also see new people moving into the neighborhood," Hoenig continues. "We get 25 people at meetings, we have committees that deal with safety, housing, cleaning up, flowers. We get new people on the board--we're building rather than losing."
Of course, WIA has enjoyed better luck with recent development in its own backyard. Hoenig played a leading role in last year's negotiations over the planned BP gas station, which led to significant improvements in the site plans, including the preservation of a small building now occupied by the Community Mediation Center, and of a popular mural on the building's north wall.
But Hoenig, who also represented WIA on the Stadium Task Force during the late '90s, says that his group's apparent successes in the development arena came about not because of any particular negotiation skill or political savvy, but because WIA happened to agree with the vision of city officials. While he personally welcomes the Giant's arrival, and is critical of BWCO's stance against the grocery store, Hoenig knows how difficult it can be to buck the city's development establishment: He was personally involved in the losing battle to save a forested area in Woodberry, west of the Jones Falls, from development by Loyola College.
"The Department of Planning acts as an agent for the developers," he says, echoing an opinion often uttered by BWCO leaders. "Their role is to force development without regard for the communities." Hoenig argues that WIA could have been more supportive of the BWCO's concerns but was largely shut out of the discussions, partly, he suspects, at the behest of planners. "The city advised the developer to work only with Better Waverly as a way of driving a wedge between the communities," he says. Whether or not the city deliberately intended to divide the two Waverly organizations, the Giant project has chilled the already cool relationship between their respective leaders.
Before luring readers any further into what one activist calls "the soap opera" of Waverly, I should disclose my own connections to the community. Nearly a decade has passed since my five-year sojourn on Waverly's Homestead Street. In retrospect, I can see that my wife and I were part of a great demographic stream that flowed through Charles Village and Waverly in the '80s and early '90s and relocated in the quasi-suburban neighborhoods along the corridors of York and Harford roads. My present community, which real-estate types call "Greater Lauraville," is rife with former Waverly residents. At the same time, some people I met through political work in the early '80s have never left Waverly--generally those who never started families.
To understand how Waverly became what it is today, I relied heavily on Charlie Doble, who grew up on Gorsuch Avenue and was my landlord when I lived on Homestead Street. Doble moved to Lauraville in 1988, but keeps a hand in Waverly affairs. For several years during the '90s, he led Johns Hopkins undergrads on history tours of his old stomping grounds. He remembers, perhaps too well, the hostility that greeted the first African-Americans who, in the mid-'60s, dared to move into what he calls "lower Waverly." The streets just south of 33rd Street were then solidly Caucasian and working-class; Doble was one of local redneck punks who harassed the new neighbors. While some white families stayed put as racial demographic change gained ground, others panicked. Property values dropped and huge numbers of houses were snatched up by blockbusting slumlords. In retrospect, Doble says, race was a distraction: "What was really going on was a change of ownership where vast amounts of money were being made" by absentee owners buying cheap and selling dear.
One unintended consequence of integration was the original division of Waverly along 33rd Street, creating the social rift that still shapes the area's politics. The sprawling Northeast Community Organization (NECO), founded in the '60s to manage issues of housing and racial change, took 33rd Street as its southern boundary and helped create the WIA. Waverly's southern half, excluded from the new entity, adopted the name "Better Waverly" as a way to describe its own intentions. Inevitably the name was (and is) misinterpreted as a comparative, which doesn't help relations with the folks across 33rd.
Doble also believes that an imbalance of community power was cemented by the uneven geographical split, with lasting consequences. Far more people--and far more voters--live in northern Waverly's dense blocks of rowhouses than in southern Waverly's more diverse collection of homes. In general, WIA's territory is somewhat better off financially and more stable than Better Waverly, which is hemmed in, east and west, by commercial and light-industrial areas, and by the crime-plagued Waverly Apartments to the south.
In the later '60s, a number of southern Waverly's low-rent Victorian manses left vacant by white flight were occupied by radical collectives and group houses, populated by young liberal-minded white people who shared political and countercultural philosophies. Eventually settling on both sides of 33rd Street, the growing population of progressive activists also made its presence felt in the commercial district, particularly on 31st Street. The 31st Street Bookstore (since replaced by Normals), Sam's Belly Food Co-op, and the Bread and Roses Coffeehouse all sprang from that social movement, as did the still-thriving 32nd Street Farmer's Market.
As the '70s progressed, the collectives were joined or replaced by yet more generally liberal-minded white people who, unlike the slumlords, bought the old houses in order to fix them up and live in them. Where more conventional, upwardly mobile city dwellers might have seen Waverly as run-down and risky, the new residents valued the area's architectural charm, shady streets, and village-like qualities. Many of these new entrants were gay individuals and couples who felt comfortable with the area's political identity and its live-and-let-live ethos. By the time Joe Stewart moved to Baltimore in 1979, this profile was well established.
"All the circles that I traveled in had a base in Waverly--the lawyer's guild, the Left community, the lesbian and gay community all seemed to be centered in Waverly," Stewart recalls. "It was described to me as a melting pot--Waverly had a little bit of everything, and it was a comfortable place for people in alternative communities. . . . It seemed like the natural place to live."
Thus, through the '80s, the communities of Waverly enjoyed something approaching stability, with a population that reflected the city's overall racial composition, and a near majority of its housing in the hands of owner-occupants. The area's greatest weakness was (and arguably still is) its lackluster public schools, which prompted many middle-class residents to move out as their children reached kindergarten age.
Then, with the '90s, came the slow, agonizing loss of Memorial Stadium as a source of jobs and a focus of local identity. "The stadium gave families access to jobs and money way beyond what they would have made otherwise," Doble recalls. "There were lots of well-paying jobs for working-class boys, and even senior citizens, who worked as ushers." While some Waverly-ites swore they would not miss the routine traffic jams and parking shortages that accompanied every Orioles game, others worried that the community would lose a measure of police protection and other city services once 33rd Street ceased to be a primary focus of official attention.
The worries were well-founded. "Six months after the Orioles left, there was trash, dirt, the cops were gone, the lights were gone, the liveliness was gone," says Paula Branch. She blames the surge in street trash to the influx of new lower-income residents displaced by the implosion of downtown Baltimore's high-rise public housing projects, which coincided with the stadium's protracted shutdown. "We didn't [litter] in Waverly," Branch says. "We wondered, who are these people? Where are they from?"
As my wife and I contemplated homeownership and parenthood, we took notice of syringes in the gutters and the groups of young men huddled on corners near pay phones, and decided to join the migration to the northeast. Within a year after we left Homestead Street in Better Waverly, in 1993, our old block was the scene of two shootings, both drug related. BWCO's leaders, understandably, took the early '90s exodus personally. Even before the thought of leaving Waverly crossed my mind, one of BWCO's activists asked me if I, too, was going to "move to Petticoat Junction," her scornful nickname for Lauraville.
In view of the constant pressures on their street-level quality of life, what Waverly and the other "stadium neighborhoods" accomplished in the '90s seems quietly heroic. Rather than leap into the arms of dubious commercial salvation, they held out for the revitalization of the existing Greenmount shopping district, defeated a plan to replace the shuttered Eastern High School with a suburban-style strip mall, opposed retail development on the stadium site, and squelched the addition of a third fast-food emporium--a Burger King--to the intersection of Greenmount and 29th Street. Eastern High is now a complex of administrative offices for Johns Hopkins University, and what would have been the Burger King is now an independent small business called Magic Discount. Both sides of 33rd Street have also waged war against trash, with more than 140 cleanup events organized by BWCO's Malick, and, more recently, a block-to-block dumpster program set up by WIA member Rick Harris.
In the later '90s, the two Waverly organizations tried to collaborate on a program to promote homeownership in the area. While the project fell victim to personality clashes and the two groups' chronically rocky relations, one of the housing program's staff, Debra Evans, continued to serve BWCO for four years as a community organizer, working block-to-block to identify street-level issues and grassroots leaders. Officer Doug Gibson, a spokesperson for Baltimore City Police's Northern District credits Evans' outreach with a key role in moderating crime south of 33rd Street, chiefly by encouraging neighbors to report nuisances and suspicious activity. (According to police statistics, crime in both sides of Waverly is declining, with "total crime" down by almost 22 percent in Better Waverly, and nearly 29 percent in WIA's turf over the last two years).
On the housing front, striking success has been achieved by Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, the local branch of the well-known national private nonprofit, which started working in Better Waverly in 1996 with BWCO's blessing. So far, Habitat has restored 42 houses in the Better Waverly area, mostly rowhouses on Montpelier Street, plus a small number of properties in WIA's area. Despite some BWCO members' initial fears that the project might attract undesirable lower-income residents, the Habitat families have become a stabilizing force in the area. "Before Habitat took that over, we were just going down the greased slope to slumhood," says Malick, "They've brought us some very good neighbors." Some of the new homeowners have joined BWCO's board.
Other local residents, however, were unimpressed by BWCO's initiatives on housing and quality of life issues--notably Bryon Predika. Predika complains that neither the community organization nor city officials responded to his repeated calls for help with prostitution, trash, and anti-social neighbors. "For the 18 years that I lived there, [BWCO did] nothing to stop the slide of the neighborhood," Predika says. "Once a year we'd have a Christmas party and all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' and that was it. It was just useless."
The backdrop to all of Waverly's woes in the '90s was the uncertainty surrounding the vast stadium site, which, once abandoned, had a depressing effect on property values and hastened the exodus of more middle-class homeowners. After nearly a decade of community discussions and competing redevelopment schemes, the struggle over the site climaxed with a meeting in March 1999. Spokespeople for three alternative development schemes addressed a crowd of some 800 community residents, representing both Waverly groups plus the Ednor Gardens-Lakeside neighborhood (north and east of the site) and Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello (south and east). People who participated in the meeting still express amazement at what happened on that occasion.
The presumed front-runner proposal--a high-tech industrial park, nominally supported by Johns Hopkins--was given a strikingly lackluster presentation by developer Willard Hackerman of the Whiting-Turner Company along with the A&R Development Corp. A plan proposed by Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse, incorporating an ingenious reuse of the stadium structure, was dismissed by the communities because it was heavy on retail and clearly out of sync with the neighborhoods' wishes. GEDCO, however, came armed with an elaborate presentation; the nonprofit had also been careful to visit each community group individually.
Ultimately, Mayor Kurt Schmoke's development czar, housing commissioner Daniel Henson, chose the GEDCO plan, seemingly in deference to community wishes. But while Myles Hoenig favored GEDCO, he views the process skeptically. "It was not our decision, it was Henson's decision. We just happened to agree with plans for the area."
The latest round of development traces back to early 2001, when Dan Klocke, then director of the Charles Village Community Benefits District, invited Vanguard Equities' Weinberg to walk with him around the boarded-up SuperFresh grocery at Gorsuch and Old York. Weinberg had already developed six Giant Food sites in Maryland and Delaware, including an Edmondson Village store that was the city's first new Giant in 20 years. The developer was aware of Mayor O'Malley's keen interest in bringing new grocery outlets to city neighborhoods. Liking what he saw in Waverly--an unusually large parcel in the midst of an underserved community--he spent the next 18 months quietly approaching the owners of adjacent properties and acquiring options to buy most of them.
Weinberg admits that his efforts were deliberately secretive. "We were trying to control the properties without the word getting out [to competitors] but also [trying] to keep the community informed," he says. In August 2001, Weinberg meet with BWCO activists and showed them a rough prototype for a Giant Food store on the Waverly site. According to the BWCO's Paula Branch, this initial scheme was welcomed by her organization; it represented a much smaller structure and parking lot than the plan now in place. Most significantly, Branch says, there was no indication that the Giant project would require the demolition of Gorsuch Avenue's Victorian "jewels."
On Jan. 8, 2002, after meeting with officials from Giant Food, Mayor O'Malley publicly announced that the grocery chain would build a store in Waverly. Three weeks later, without informing BWCO or other community groups, 3rd District City Council member Robert Curran introduced legislation to enable the "purchase or condemnation of certain properties" in Waverly to make way for the grocery store
In a recent interview, Curran did not deny that he failed to inform the community about his legislation; he says, in effect, that BWCO should have seen it coming. But BWCO's Winifred DePalma, a lawyer, says the group was "shocked" to learn about the bill after the fact, especially because "[Curran] has been a real friend to this neighborhood and people spoke to him very freely." Although DePalma and colleagues pleaded with Curran, she says, "He wouldn't pull the bill, he wouldn't help us slow down the whole process." Her theory, widely shared by her compatriots, is that Curran is afraid to go against the will of O'Malley, his nephew-in-law.
Curran admits that the process put him in a difficult position. "It was almost a lose-lose for me," he says, referring to the pressures he felt from all parties in the negotiations. "I could ill afford to have [the Giant project] fail. The problem I had is that the window for commercial development is only so big and only open for so long. If we didn't move with this project now, I don't know when we could have had another opportunity of this magnitude."
Still he insists that the negotiations were "as open a process as I've ever seen." Curran adds, in his own defense, that he played a key role in getting BP to modify its gas station plans at Greenmount and 33rd. Curran also points to the lack of unanimity on the project south of 33rd Street, alluding to the stance of Joe Stewart and his petition in support of the Giant.
From January onward, Better Waverly's leaders increasingly distrusted the city's role in the process. Meetings between BWCO, city planners, and Weinberg became increasingly contentious; at one point last June, BWCO organizer Debra Evans turned out about 40 neighborhood residents to hold a noisy rally at the corner of Frisby and 33rd streets, banging pots and pans and protesting that the city was deliberately ignoring the community's concerns. City planning officials decline to characterize their give-and-take with BWCO when asked, but some Waverly residents not affiliated with the group say that its spokespeople were "belligerent" and "confrontational."
One source of BWCO's ire was the decision by city Planning Department staff that the Giant project would not require a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, to be filed by Vanguard Equities. A PUD is normally generated by a developer to request flexibility within existing zoning requirements--for example, the PUD for Stadium Place restricts housing on the site to senior citizens only. PUDs must be approved by City Council ordinance in what DePalma calls "the full democratic process," including a public hearing. BWCO members saw the prospect of a PUD process on the proposed Giant as a way to gain more control over the project, but planning staff--under pressure to speed the project forward, critics allege--contended that hearings before the Planning Commission would accomplish the same purpose and address any issues that might otherwise arise in a PUD. In response to community outcry, the Planning Commission asked Vanguard Equities to submit its final site design for the commission's approval--an unusual step, but one that failed to mollify BWCO.
DePalma counters that, unlike City Council, the Planning Commission is not answerable to voters, and that it has no power to directly restrict Vanguard Equities' use of its Waverly parcel. To DePalma and others who represented BWCO, having the Giant imposed "from on high" was particularly galling because the organization felt it had earned the city's respect through their work on the Stadium Task Force. Exhausted by the past year's conflicts, Malick sums up the political results of the process as "government of the people, by the bureaucracy, for the corporations."
Of course, there are many residents of Waverly and the surrounding neighborhoods who are thrilled to have a new supermarket within walking distance. And despite--or perhaps because of--BWCO's strident interaction with the planners and developers, a number of the group's smaller demands have been incorporated into the final design of the site. Notably, the store will face east, toward the community, rather than being oriented to 33rd Street. Gorsuch Avenue will come to a fenced-off dead end instead of feeding into the store's parking lot. People from Better Waverly will be able to walk directly to the store, but they will have to use 32nd or 33rd streets to enter the parking lot on wheels. Nor will drivers be able to exit into the neighborhood.
One observer close to the planning process, who spoke on condition of anonymity, comments that the entire plan is "the classic 'camel' project. You know what that is? A horse designed by a committee. . . . The community was part of the problem, but the Mayor's people never challenged Giant. They roll over for whatever Giant wants because the Mayor wants [the grocery store]." Adding that O'Malley himself "jumped the gun" by announcing the Giant deal in January, before the planning process began, the same observer says, "the whole process was back-asswards."
Kevin Malachi, the Baltimore Development Corp. staffer who serves as the city's point person for grocery store development, declined to "rehash" the details of the negotiations and decisions that led to the now-final site design in Waverly. But, he insists, "we went through the proper protocols, we worked through the process, and we got community buy-in. Whenever you have changes, there's never 100 percent agreement. The majority of the community in that area knew that this store was going to be an addition to the quality of life."
Vanguard Equities anticipates demolition of the proposed site to begin in the first few months of 2003. As the property will be leased, not sold, to Giant Food, Leonard Weinberg will continue to be a player--or a combatant--in Waverly's ongoing development politics. He is guardedly hopeful that the store will be open for business by next Thanksgiving. "A year from now," he says, "we'll be celebrating and patting each other on the back and saying that we did the right thing."
Not everyone will come to the party. Some Better Waverly members, including Paula Branch and Laura Malick, say they'll move out of the community rather than see their Victorian village despoiled and their community's hard-fought autonomy undermined. "Unfortunately it's the persnickety people who are moving, the people who care a lot," Branch says, predicting that "things will get worse before they get better." Whatever impact the grocery store may have on traffic, aesthetics, and property values, another exodus of middle-class residents--particularly if they include discouraged community leaders--may ultimately turn out to be the most significant result of the past year's development battle.
It would certainly result in a changing of the guard at BWCO. Evans, now employed as coordinator of a multineighborhood project to design a community playground for Stadium Place, is also volunteering as "interim president" of the embattled organization and has become its most recognized leader. City officials, police, BWCO officers and even Joe Stewart, who fought BWCO over the Giant development, name her as one of the most positive forces in the community.
For her part, Evans hopes that city planners learn something from the difficulties they encountered in fast-tracking the Giant project: "We want the city to know, if you want [development] to work, you have to go in and work with the neighborhood first. If you do it the same as you did it to us, you're going to lose people." But she also voices something like the sort of optimism that has fueled Waverly through so many ups and downs.
"Giant is coming," she says. "It's happening. It's going to be here. We put up the best fight we could, but we're not finished. We're all in this together, and we're going to work it out."
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