Poppleton redevelopment

A rendering of the apartment buildings that were approved as part of the first phase of the Poppleton redevelopment. (Courtesy of Gensler / April 13, 2014)

The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum today looks onto a tree stump and a grassy lot, but that view could soon change with the construction of two large, orange-accented apartment buildings. It's the first phase of a long-awaited redevelopment of the Poppleton area.

The go-ahead last week from the city's urban design and architecture review panel is one of the first steps forward since ambitious plans to overhaul a 13.8-acre portion of the neighborhood were announced almost a decade ago.

Just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the $800 million, 10-year redevelopment of Poppleton is supposed to build on the expansion of the University of Maryland's BioPark and ultimately create more than 1,000 residential units, a new charter school, shopping and parks in a neighborhood once riddled with crime and drug activity.

"It's been a long time," said Dorothy Page, 61, a member of the Southwest Partnership, an umbrella group for local community organizations. "I'm looking forward to it."

New York-based La Cite Development won rights from the city in 2005 for the area, blocks of rowhouses and empty lots roughly bordered by Mulberry Street and Fairmount Avenue to the north and south, and North Carrolton Avenue and Amity Street to the east and west.

The city's Board of Estimates signed off on a land disposition agreement in 2006, but the project stalled while La Cite looked for financing during the recession and the city worked through the acquisition of more than 500 properties. In 2012, La Cite as Poppleton Development I LLC, sued to stop the city from terminating the agreement.

That dispute was resolved a year ago and is now "water under the bridge," said La Cite President Dan Bythewood, who announced financing for the project in December.

The phase of the project approved last week is expected to cost $61 million, with construction starting this fall, he said.

The two apartment buildings, rising about six stories at 101 and 201 N. Schroeder St., will contain about 260 rental units, about 20 percent reserved as workforce housing. The proposal also calls for about 15,000 square feet of ground floor "neighborhood" retail and a large multilevel garage.

In addition, the panel approved plans for two parks, one community park across from the Poe House and another reserved for dogs.

The city plans to contribute a not-yet-announced amount of tax increment financing toward the development. The city has spent at least $10 million to acquire the properties. The project will require more approvals from the city before construction begins.

"I know it's going to bring a lot of change, it's going to bring a lot more people, so that's good," said Mohammed Attashy, a co-owner of M&A Grocery on West Baltimore Street. Attashy is opening a grill on Poppleton Street, across from the state morgue, the Forensic Medical Center, which opened in 2010. "I'm all in with the development. It brings more business."

Designs for the apartment buildings, by the Gensler architectural firm, call for blank, dark gray outer facades, brightened by walls with randomly patterned blocks of orange, gray and white that surround interior courtyards. The design has similarities to the multicolored Gateway dormitory at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Fitzgerald Apartments, also in Mount Royal.

The city's architecture review panelists expressed concern about the color, noting that orange might not wear well over time, as well as the quality of some of the ground-level construction materials. La Cite will have to come before the panel again to review some aspects of the proposal.

About 20 community members at the meeting were divided about the merits of the design, but many said they wanted the project to move forward.

"It used to be an eyesore when people came to our neighborhood. … It was always with a negative tone," said the Rev. Ernest King a member of the Poe Terraces advisory board. "Since this project, the neighborhood has gotten on board with the clearing of the land, and some pride has taken place.

"I'm just excited that people have taken interest in our community," he added. "It's very important and will help stabilize our community."

As the overall project moves forward, the rental units — many of them market rate — will be completed first. The developer hopes to attract renters to the area in the hope that homeowners will follow.

"It's not necessarily the scary place that Baltimoreans think it is," Bythewood said. "There's a real strategy to making people move past that mentality."

La Cite estimates the Poppleton redevelopment will create about 360 positions, including 170 in construction and 60 once the new stores open. The company is working with community groups to try to match some of the positions with local residents.

That's critical if the overall goal of community improvement is to be achieved, neighbors said. Poppleton has the oldest stock of public housing in the city, and even the Poe House — the neighborhood's one landmark — closed for a time because of a lack of funding.

"This used to be a vibrant area back in the day. … Everything dried up. They need jobs, number one, then homes," said Henry Jones, 54, who moved into Poppleton in 1966 and remembers when the Poe House fronted a block of similarly sized rowhouses and stores. "While you're building, help some of the people that live in the neighborhood."

On Monday afternoon, children wheeled down North Amity Street past 64-year-old Benjamin Mercer sitting on his front porch. Mercer said the neighborhood has taken a turn for the better, noting that even the cricket-filled lot in front of his home — the future location of one of the apartments — has been tidied up in recent months.

"Before, you sat out here and all you see is a bunch of weeds," he said, adding of the new plans: "Fine with me. Anything beats nothing."

nsherman@baltsun.com