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Mobtown Beat

Middle East Conflict

The City's Plans for a New Biotech Park Hits Resistance From East Siders

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/21/2002

Lisa Williams had planned to live in her East Baltimore home for a long time--perhaps even the rest of her life. She and her husband have invested money, emotion, and 18 years of their lives in the house they own on Wolfe Street in this struggling neighborhood, known as Middle East, so she was not pleased when the city approached her in 2000 and told her that she would soon have to move out.

Beginning on Aug. 27, the Baltimore City Council will hold hearings on the long-awaited plan to relocate the residents of Williams' neighborhood to make way for the East Baltimore Biotech Park, a 2 million-square-foot, state-of-the-art, mixed-use development project. The park--a joint effort between the city, the state, the business community, and Johns Hopkins Medical Center--is the linchpin in a plan to redevelop the area around the hospital complex. The park will contain space for emerging biotechnology companies, retail businesses, and mixed-income residences and apartments. If implemented, plan proponents say, the biotech park, its accompanying homes, and supporting businesses could transform Middle East's drug-blighted streets and boarded-up rowhouses into a vibrant planned community. The $1 billion development would be overseen by a nonprofit community redevelopment agency.

In order to put the plan into action, the City Council has but to pass five bills to allow for the condemnation of properties in five different neighborhoods, including Middle East. If the bills are passed by the end of summer, as project proponents anticipate, it will take about 18 months for the city to purchase the homes and begin the first phase of the project. According to Baltimore Deputy Mayor Laurie Schwartz, the first new building projects could be completed by the end of 2003.

But Williams and her neighbors, who say they have been the backbone of a neighborhood which has languished for years, say they want to participate in the creation of a new, prosperous Middle East. After all, Williams says, residents like herself have been the only ones offering the area any kind of stability. But despite a year's worth of city-led presentations designed to inform residents of the east side's bright future, as the time approaches for the city to hold its hearings, Williams and other Middle East residents are becoming more anxious about the city's plans. The city has put together a buyout proposal that will restrict dislocated residents' housing choices. Community members who have invested significantly in their neighborhood also fear that the new Middle East will be beyond their financial means, despite assurances from the city that some of the 2,000 new or rehabbed homes will be "affordable." Schwartz says that the city has yet to set a price for the homes.

"I would love to stay where I'm at and see this redevelopment and live among it," Williams says. Instead, the city plans to move residents from Middle East to other ailing city neighborhoods that need more homeowners as a stabilizing force. But Williams and her neighbors say they don't want to trade one blighted area for another. "We want a decent home in a stable community," she says. "We don't want to move into another area where there are dilapidated homes on each side of where the renovated homes are going to be."

Last Monday evening, two dozen or so of Williams' neighbors gathered in front of a home on Madison Street--one of the last left standing on the a block lined with chainlink fences and scabbed with empty lots--to draw attention to their plight. Above all, they demanded the right to participate in the decision-making process and fair compensation for the loss of their properties.

The city has offered homeowners what it considers a fair deal: Displaced residents will receive the assessed value of their houses, plus moving costs, up to $70,000; residents would be allowed to obtain a $47,500 forgivable mortgage that would be paid off by the city after five years.

But there's a catch: The city will only offer the deal to Middle Easterners who agree to move to other blighted east-side neighborhoods. Residents who choose to move elsewhere will receive less money. For example, those who wish to purchase homes outside of east Baltimore will only be allowed a $27,500 forgivable mortgage.

According to the members of the Save Middle East (Baltimore) Action Committee, however, part of the money being offered to them and their neighbors comes from federal sources that don't allow municipalities to dictate where recipients may live.

On July 12, the group sent a letter to City Council members Paula Branch, Bernard Young, and Pamela Carter objecting to the city's restrictions. "According to the federal housing quality standards . . . the relocatee gets to choose the house he or she desires and therefore determines when a house meets his or her own quality standards," the letter says. "The Federal Relocation Act does not restrict those affected to be bound to specific geographic areas."

Members of the Save Middle East group say that, thus far, their demands to be "treated with respect" by the city have not been met. They say that the first stages of demolition to make way for the park is disrupting their lives (parts of the neighborhood have already been reduced to rubble, and a fine, dusty haze fills the air). They say they want to be able to move to decent neighborhoods, where the quality of life is at least as good as it was in Middle East.

"We haven't even fought the process of a biotech park," says Pat Tracey, the group's president. "What we are saying is, if we have to sacrifice our houses, at least let us choose where we are going to go."

Schwartz says the city is aware of the residents' concerns about the reimbursement deal and is now evaluating its relocation proposal. "There is some question whether it's legal or whether it violates fair-housing laws," she acknowledges, adding that the city is now planning to open an outreach office to give residents a place to voice their concerns and have their questions answered.

Councilperson Branch says she agrees with residents who say they shouldn't be told where to live. As chair of the council's Urban Affairs Committee, she will oversee the council hearings on the project that begin later this month. Branch says residents will have a chance to voice their concerns at the meetings, and that properties that don't need to be demolished to make way for the biotech park will be spared. "If a resident's home is in good condition and up to standard housing code, and they don't want to move, then [the house] will be amended from the bill," Branch says. However, she acknowledges that the Middle East neighborhood--which is situated where the heart of the biotech park is going to be--is going to be difficult to spare.

Despite reassurances, residents feel they are struggling against the political process that is stacked against them and lack advocates in high places.

"It's like we don't have any say because we don't have any money," Williams laments. "They are going to dictate [to us] what they are going to do."

Williams resents the fact that the neighborhood's representatives in the city government seem to be working to have their neighborhood--where she and her neighbors have fought blight and crime for years--rebuilt for someone else.

"This total disrespect for east Baltimore must stop," Tracey shouted through a bullhorn at Monday night's protest. "How do you think this would be done in Roland Park? Would they just roll up the trucks and knock down the buildings?"

"Is this a government for the people, by the people?" asked John Hammock, who had hoped to turn a bakery he owns in the neighborhood into a cooking school for kids. "Are we the people, or is this a joke? I feel like the Indians being put off the reservation."

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