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Mobtown Beat

Remington Stalemate

Apartment Plan Sparks Internecine Squabble in North Baltimore Community

By Molly Rath | Posted 10/31/2001

On a spring evening in May, developer Sandy Marenberg met with Remington residents to discuss the upscale apartment complex he plans to build in the North Baltimore neighborhood. It's a deal some community members have contested since its conception early this year, and as the meeting drew to a close Marenberg said that he hoped to eventually provide the press with an "interesting story" about a developer and a community could come to cooperate on a project that "started out being less than positive."

Nearly six months later, Marenberg is nowhere near realizing that hope. What began as a typical dispute over zoning variances and parking shortages has evolved into a battle that is larger, more complex, and decidedly more bitter.

It's the story of a fractured neighborhood, long overlooked by City Hall and torn over impending gentrification and change. On one side are Marenberg, who sees untapped development potential in Remington, and a handful of homeowners who relish the prospect of high-end investment in the community. On the other are residents who claim their misgivings about the project haven't been given due consideration, bringing to fore long-simmering fears that private money rather than public input will determine the neighborhood's future.

"It dates back years, really," says Sarah Fawcett-Lee, a homeowner of eight years. "Remington's really an odd mix of people"--highly educated yuppies and Section 8 tenants, working-class families and boho artists. "For years Remington has always had a hard time getting together and making decisions and working together."

Despite a recent trend toward rising home-ownership and home values, Remington remains a struggling community where businesses are departing rather than moving in and where crime and trash have taken root. And the 0.6-acre lot on Cresmont Avenue south of the Papermoon Diner is a prime example of that abandonment and neglect.

For years the parcel has been a vacant, rat-infested dumping ground. In February 2000, diner owner Un Kim bought the lot in hopes of eliminating the nuisance and opening a new restaurant/bar called Inferno. The Remington Community Association endorsed the proposal, but other residents balked at the notion of a business with a liquor license and late hours and fought Kim until she settled instead on a restaurant venue in Mount Vernon.

This past spring, Marenberg contracted to purchase the property and announced plans to get it rezoned it from commercial to residential and erect a $6 million, six-story apartment building with 40-plus units, targeting Johns Hopkins graduate students and employees with rents ranging from $900 to $1,800 a month. As with Kim's project, community response was mixed. Some saw it as a much-needed boost for Remington; others worried about the building's height, the likely worsening of an existing parking crunch, the potential pall a big rental property might cast on the home-ownership trend, and--as time wore on--the fact that the project seemed to be advancing easily despite their concerns.

As debate over what to do with the lot developed, Remington residents aligned themselves into opposing activist camps. The community association, on the losing side of the Inferno battle, fizzled, and the Remington Neighborhood Alliance (RNA) formed in August 2000. Ward Eisinger, president of the new group, says it didn't actively oppose the Inferno, but some of its leaders were prominent foes of that project. Now RNA is spearheading opposition to Marenberg's apartments, passing a resolution against the project--and sparking complaints that it doesn't represent the community at large.

"I don't think it was done democratically at all. I think the board met and put down whatever they wanted to say," Fawcett-Lee, an RNA member who backs the apartment proposal, says of the resolution. "The whole Papermoon Diner/Inferno project basically killed the old neighborhood association, and the group that was fighting Un Kim incorporated." Fawcett-Lee characterizes the $6 million apartment project as "a positive addition to our community. I think [it] will spur change. I have a feeling that Remington is on the verge of being discovered."

Eisinger says he welcomes development money in Remington, citing both the need for revitalization in the area and projects that do have RNA's blessing--Hopkins' ongoing renovation of the former Eller Media building on Remington Avenue, the Baltimore Museum of Art's takeover of a warehouse at Sisson and 28th streets. The problem with Marenberg's project, he says, is that "we're not being included in that part of the conversation. There's very much a tone of, 'It's either this thing and the community accepts it, or it goes back to Un Kim; if you're good you'll get treats, if you're bad you'll get the Inferno.' There's something that doesn't quite smell right."

High on his list of bad odors, Eisinger says, is that Marenberg has been acting on behalf of a company that, officially speaking, no longer exists. Marenberg Enterprises, the business name attached to the apartment project, forfeited its Maryland incorporation in 1998 by failing to file an annual report with the state Department of Assessments and Taxation the previous year.

On Oct. 4, the city Planning Commission recommended approval of legislation introduced by City Council member Paula Johnson Branch (D-2nd District) to allow the rezoning Marenberg needs--despite his company's uncertain legal status, and despite a recommendation from council President Sheila Dixon's office that the planning panel postpone its hearing on the zoning change until the issue was sorted out. (Dixon had sought an opinion on the matter from city's legal department after it was brought to her attention by RNA.) The council could vote on the rezoning before the end of fall.

Paul Anderson, chief legal-review officer for the state assessments office, says companies are forfeited and subsequently revived all the time. Indeed, about two weeks after the Planning Commission vote, Marenberg's company was reconstituted under a new name, Sandy Marenberg Enterprises. The developer dismisses the flap as "much ado about nothing," a side issue in the larger debate over development in Remington.

"The bigger picture is why, in a community that hasn't seen any new residential development, where recent commercial development has failed, where existing businesses are closing [and] there are boarded up houses and vacant lots . . . why would any group of individuals find purely market-rate housing something that they didn't want?" he says. "All of this is good. It's like being against motherhood and apple pie."

But the RNA contingent argues that the city's nonchalance toward the legal status of an outfit aiming to put upwards of 40 apartments in their backyard shows how little chance they stand in getting their concerns aired when confronted with well-heeled, well-connected developers. Marenberg is a longtime associate of William Struever of Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, which has numerous city-backed development deals in the works, and Earl Armiger, a Howard County developer and a vice president of the National Association of Homebuilders.

"Are there two forces at work here?" Eisinger asks. "And where does the community get to have a say?"

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