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Mobtown Beat

Fast Food

City Revs Up Bid to Relocate Soup Kitchen

By Molly Rath | Posted 10/13/1999

After months of debate over downtown businesses' call to relocate Our Daily Bread, the City Council is considering legislation that would give the city's largest soup kitchen a set of presumably more suitable neighbors: a half-dozen correctional facilities.

With city officials scrambling to find a new site for Our Daily Bread—and, possibly, for a new hub of services for the homeless—City Council members Paula Johnson Branch and Bernard "Jack" Young (both D-2nd District) introduced legislation Oct. 4 that would authorize the city to acquire by either purchase or condemnation a 5.5-acre central Baltimore lot described as "403 Terminal St." Technically, the address doesn't exist; Terminal Street, which ran east-west between Fallsway and Exeter Street, was replaced several years ago by a parking lot. The property is located just east of the Jones Falls Expressway and is surrounded by criminal-justice institutions, including the state penitentiary and city jail.

The bill, an initiative of the city Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), is being touted as a possible solution to the year-long controversy over Our Daily Bread's home in Mount Vernon, where businesses say it fuels crime and decay. City officials say they're fast-tracking the deal to push it through before the new council takes over in December. But in their haste they've submitted a bill that could be hindered by loopholes and political-turf concerns.

Sponsors Branch and Young, whose district includes Our Daily Bread, have been instrumental in the search for a new locale since attempts to move the soup kitchen to another neighborhood in their district prompted a community uproar this past spring. But the property they're now suggesting sits squarely in the 1st District—and proposing legislation that directly affects another district is a no-no in the unwritten book of council protocol.

"In the 1st District we introduce nothing that the community isn't aware of, and if [403 Terminal St.] is indeed in the 1st, then we may have a problem," says council member Lois Garey, who represents that district.

The bill's timing raises other political concerns. The Terminal Street lot has long been coveted by city economic-development officials and was put forward as a possible homeless-services site over the summer. But beyond Branch, Young, and housing officials, none of the major players who would be involved in a possible deal knew about the pending transaction prior to Oct. 4—not Our Daily Bread; not the parcel's current owner, Newark, N.J.-based Edison Parking Associates; and not Atlantis, a bar and strip club that is the only major business nearby. Add to that an already jammed council docket, a seven-week window in which all bills that don't pass get deep-sixed, and a political environment of transition in which suspicion surrounding new legislation runs high, and quick passage of the Terminal Street bill is uncertain.

"It's a very dangerous time in Baltimore City government, a time to be very cautious," Garey says, referring to the impending arrival of a new mayor and a council with at least four new members. "There are a lot of things being introduced as last favors and last passes, and I think we should be really cautious about what we pass and we don't."

According to HCD's Office of Homeless Services, circumstances conspired to make the bill necessary. Following gripes by Mount Vernon-area businesses, Associated Catholic Charities, which operates Our Daily Bread, agreed in the spring to a relocation, as long as the deal included government financial support and an expansion of the soup kitchen's size and services. The city agreed, eying an opportunity to include Our Daily Bread, which serves some 900 meals a day, in its plans for a multipurpose center for homeless people, a place that would provide everything from housing referrals to hot meals and employment counseling.

Year after year, HCD has budgeted for such a center, according to Leslie Leitch, director of the homeless-services office, but with no set site, the money hasn't been released. After an attempt earlier this year to put the center in East Baltimore's Johnston Square fizzled due to failure to include the neighborhood in the planning process, officials turned the search toward nonresidential sites and came up with the Terminal Street lot, which they deemed "underutilized" and an ideal fit for a homeless-services complex. Because the outgoing Schmoke administration favors creating such a facility, Leitch says, HCD moved quickly to get things rolling before City Hall's changing of the guard in December.

"It's just always been a good lot and I think as we kept narrowing our focus and vision, someone articulated homeless services with that lot and we said, "OK,'" Leitch says. "We have not formally talked to anyone about their participation; this is the preliminary step. But if we don't have the land, it's not even worth having a conversation with anybody. It's kind of a parallel to the west-side development—you've got to kind of get the process going at some point."

That the $350-million plans to redevelop downtown's west side took shape without public input perpetuated worries about government ignoring community-level concerns when it comes to development, to the extent that it has become an issue in the current mayoral campaign. The quick and quiet nature of the proposed Terminal Street deal has raised similar concerns among advocates for the homeless, particularly in the wake of recent steps by activists and city and business leaders to work together to find long-term solutions to poverty and homelessness (Mobtown Beat, 11/18/98).

"At first blush, 5.5 acres seems awfully large and contrary to our position that any facility should be small in terms of density," says Rob Hess, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Poverty Solutions and a member of the recently formed Baltimore City Task Force on Homelessness. "The timing is also interesting in that the task force is working through a series of solutions, and this sounds like a pretty significant effort that the city's contemplating that hasn't been discussed with the task force. It's a little disconcerting."

Those directly affected by the deal appear to have been blindsided as well. Our Daily Bread officials declined comment when asked about 403 Terminal St., but Atlantis owner John Rock says he knew nothing about it. Garey has made no secret of her surprise, and Mike Lewis, Edison Parking's Baltimore general manager, says, "It's breaking news to me."

The 5.5-acre lot is located on the northeast corner of an 11-acre tract Edison owns and operates as a 1,400-car parking lot between Fallsway and Exeter streets, and it was assessed last January at $1.77 million. Lewis says Edison isn't looking for a buyer but would probably sell if the price were right. He also says that the company doesn't want to unload the land piecemeal. Edison has plans to develop the entire property in the next couple of years as a mixed-use site with a $10 million parking garage to accommodate four nearby correctional institutions, including a juvenile-justice center now under construction. Breaking up the lot would reduce development opportunities and diminish the overall property value, he says.

Meanwhile, Leitch's office is soliciting interest among homeless-services providers to be a part of the planned resource center. Michael Dwyer, liaison officer for the homeless-services office, names Maryland Community Kitchen (formerly known as Moveable Feast), as another possible tenant. The city may also relocate some of its homeless- and social-services operations to the site.

The legislation is currently before the council's Taxation and Finance Committee, chaired by council member Martin O'Malley (D-3rd District), the Democratic candidate for mayor. The committee must review the bill, hold a public hearing, and make a recommendation to the full council. Because the committee holds bills for 30 days to allow city agencies to weigh in on their potential impact, there's no chance of anything happening before early November, scant weeks before the council's last session on Dec. 6. But that's not to say there isn't time for it to come up for a final vote, O'Malley says.

"It could happen. If you look at the last month of any legislative body . . . you have a couple mega-hearing days and bang through it," he says. Asked about the potential political fallout from the deal, the mayoral candidate rolls his eyes. "It sounds like a really fun bill," he says.

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