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Danger Zone

Middle East Residents Still Anxious About Pending Biotech Park Demolition Hazards

Jefferson Jackson Steele
TRY NOT TO BREATHE: Activists and neighbors are afraid that the demolition of hundreds of old buildings in the Middle East Neighborhood to make way for the Hopkins Biotech Park will expose residents to hazardous lead-paint dust.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 3/16/2005

When spring breaks, demolition crews will roll into East Baltimore and take down hundreds of rowhouses standing in the way of the $800 million biotechnology office/research park planned around Johns Hopkins’ medical campus. It has been a year since East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), the nonprofit organization formed to manage the area’s development, halted the razing of hundreds of rowhouses amid concerns about the health of residents who would have to live with the debris, dust, and wreckage. Now East Baltimore Development has put together a demolition proposal that addresses residents’ worries—but at least one neighborhood organization, the Save Middle East Action Committee, finds no comfort in the proposed safety measures, community outreach, and reassurances being put forth by EBDI.

Save Middle East maintains, as it has since last April, that all neighborhood residents need to be relocated before the more than 500 buildings that will be demolished in the first phase of the biotech park project are taken down. However, East Baltimore Development, which has been buying up the rowhouses and relocating residents to different areas of the city, plans to proceed with demolition one block at a time, while some residents awaiting relocation remain.

“My question to them, the ones that say the [demolition] protocol is safe: Why don't they rent the houses here and stay here until the demolition is completed?” challenges Lisa Williams, president of Save Middle East Action Committee. Williams says that most of the homes in the neighborhood contain lead in the form of lead paint, and that, as they are being razed, they may spew hazardous lead dust into the air.

The demolition project was to get underway last April, but EBDI decided to delay after some community members, along with Morgan State University Professor Raymond Winbush, sounded the alarm about potential environmental dangers as a plume of dust rose over the Middle East area during the project’s symbolic demolition of a handful of rowhouses on Ashland Street.

“We actually got it on tape,” Williams says. “You see all the dust everywhere, and all the politicians trying to get away from it.”

Now EBDI hopes to get moving on converting the area—80 acres in total—into a biotech park and 1,200 mixed-income residential units. EBDI officials say they have put together a model protocol for the demolition, which will minimize the impact on human health. They say the protocol can be a model for other demolitions in the city, which is rife with aging, lead-paint-filled rowhouses.

Under the proposed protocol, which EBDI refers to as “deconstruction,” an entire block of residents must be relocated before demolition can begin. A salvage company will remove the recyclable material, and a crew will remove doors, window sashes, and floorboards—all of which typically contain lead paint—wrap them, and take them off site. Meanwhile, the neighborhood will be told which homes are slated for demolition. The demolition crews plan to use sprayed water to keep the dust down, and residents will be given supplies to keep the dust out of their homes. During the process, air testing will occur around the site to monitor for lead dust.

Eric Letsinger, deputy commissioner for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, says the project is already “maxing out” the number of precautions it can put into place.

“We’re doing everything we can think of that’s not cost-ridiculous,” says Letsinger. “I guess we could wrap the whole block in plastic and take the whole building down brick by brick and get the project done in the year 2000-never.”

For the past year and a half, EBDI has worked with other community groups, including Save Middle East, the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, and the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, to come up with this demolition plan. EBDI also solicited comments and information from neighborhood residents.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is a partner in the project, has acted as a mediator between EBDI and the community. The foundation assisted EBDI in relocating Middle East residents. EBDI also has recently arranged to have Dr. David Sacher, a former U.S. surgeon general, serve as an independent observer in the biotech demolition project. Jack Shannon, president and chief executive of EBDI, points out that the measures his organization is taking go above and beyond the protocol used in most demolitions.

“When it comes to demolition in urban areas, a lot of it takes place on a daily basis where the public and environmental and safety concerns haven’t been dealt with,” Shannon says. He says the EBDI deconstruction plan offers the safest demolition process possible.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson, who worked with EBDI on the protocol, says he doesn’t think removing residents from the entire area before the project gets underway is necessary. He says that some residents may need to be moved temporarily, if they live next to a targeted block, until the dust is settled, wetted down, and contained.

“To be honest, no one can guarantee no exposure to lead,” Beilenson says. “I think everyone can agree on that. [But] every effort has to be made to reduce the possible exposure.”

Edna Kane-Williams, an EBDI vice president who is overseeing the resident-removal process, says that 100 of 275 families affected by the Phase I of the project have already been moved to new homes outside of Middle East, so there is already plenty of vacant areas where work can begin.

“We’re trying to move people to create some kind of demarcation,” Kane-Williams says. She says the demolition protocol was formed with resident input, though she acknowledges that some (including Save Middle East Action Committee) are still not totally pleased about it.

“Maybe they won’t embrace it,” she says. “But at least they will feel more comfortable in what we’re doing.”

Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State, is a consultant for the Save Middle East Action Committee, and he says that although the new protocol is an improvement of EBDI’s original plan, he likens it to giving the residents of the region bulletproof vests, then firing a gun at them. (Of the plan last year, he accused EBDI of aiming its guns without giving residents bulletproof vests.)

“My argument is, why fire the gun at all,” Winbush says. “Have a fair and just relocation, and then fire the gun.”

Longtime anti-lead activist Dennis Livingston says Johns Hopkins has failed to live up to its obligation as a health-care institution by refusing to get all the residents out of the area before beginning the project. He challenges Hopkins to do lead-dust swipe tests inside occupied homes while the demolition is taking place. He also says he’d prefer to see the homes taken apart brick by brick and the building materials recycled.

“This is a health institution that is causing the harm to people’s health,” he says.

Ruth Ann Norton, director of the local Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (which has a contract with EBDI), says that even if residents in the immediate demolition zone were moved out, there would still be residents affected by the demolition: those living on the perimeter of the proposed biotech park. Those individuals are not going to be relocated and will have to deal with the impact of the demolitions.

“Demolition is a fact of life in the urban environment, it’s a fact of life in this country,” Norton says. For those in close proximity to the biotech zone, she says, EBDI’s deconstruction protocol will be beneficial.

But Save Middle East’s Williams says she feels like EBDI and its partners are using the remaining Middle East residents as guinea pigs to test its new deconstruction protocol.

“They are still exploring with the protocol that hasn’t been tested,” she says. “Until we have some facts, they still need to be making sure the residents aren’t in danger.”

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