Design panel reviews new vision for East Baltimore redevelopment

A new vision for the redevelopment of 88 acres north of Johns Hopkins Hospital moves the East Baltimore project in the right direction but should focus more on attracting families and improving community life for existing as well potential new residents, members of a city design panel and area residents said Thursday.

Those were among the reactions to a preliminary revised master plan for the mix of new homes, shops, offices and amenities for the Middle East neighborhood presented to a city design panel by developer Forest City New East Baltimore Partnership.

Scott Levitan, the project's development director, showed plans to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review panel that would orient the community around a six-acre park with a 12-story hotel at the north end, include a state-of-the-art public school, and feature a grocery and other shops to attract people to rent or buy homes that would start at $210,000 to $220,000.

"It will be a challenge to attract market-rate people to live in the community," Levitan told the panel, adding that the housing completed so far has been in the affordable range. "People have a lot of choices in Baltimore. It is a challenge to create a community with all the amenities … that make people decide to invest."

Developers still plan to build 1,500 to 2,000 new and renovated residential units and up to 1.7 million square feet of commercial space, and have razed most of a largely blighted neighborhood since 2004 and relocated nearly 400 families. But the project has stalled amid the recession and housing crisis, and just 220 units of affordable housing have been built, angering many current and former residents, some of whom had hoped to move back to the neighborhood. The new master plan calls for rental apartments and lofts in four- to six-story buildings and rowhouses and condo lofts for sale in four- to six-story buildings.

Developers hope to quickly start construction of residential units and begin renovations of boarded-up rowhouses to complete them by 2013 or 2014, in time for the planned opening of the new East Baltimore Community School, Levitan said.

The public K-8 school with an early childhood center is scheduled to open in 2014, and the design panel approved preliminary designs Thursday, moving the school project forward.

Levitan said the hope is that more retail would follow once homes are built. The developer has a letter of intent from Walgreens to open a new drugstore, Levitan said.

Panel members said they like the direction of the new master plan, which calls for some of the originally proposed large buildings to be split into fewer, smaller buildings and includes a much expanded park.

"The struggle the master plan will have is how do you attract families … and how do you make condos attractive to families with children?" said panel member Gary Bowden.

Some community members see the revised plan as placing too much emphasis on commercial development and paying too little attention to improving community life, said Lawrence T. Brown, a W.K. Kellogg postdoctoral fellow at Morgan State University, who has been working with neighborhood groups.

Brown told panel members that residents hope the developer will build a youth center and a child care center. He said they also want greater involvement in reviewing and approving proposed designs as well as a promise that the developer will reserve about 25 percent of the jobs in any future grocery store, hotel or department store for Middle East residents.

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