When demolition begins next week on several blocks of rowhomes, it will mark the start of a new phase for the nonprofit created by the city and others to redevelop 88 acres in East Baltimore just north of the Johns Hopkins University medical campus.
East Baltimore Development Inc. is transitioning from an all-encompassing entity that performed functions as diverse as street cleaning and after-school programs as well as land acquisition and demolition, to one largely focused on attracting developers to build new housing.
As it shifts, its employment has dwindled from more than 100 people to 42 today and is expected to shrink more in the coming year.
"We were formed to perform some specific functions, and then as we got engaged with those, we identified some others that we really needed to take on if we were to be successful," said Christopher Shea, EBDI's president and CEO. "But they're all discrete. … When they're completed, we're done."
The $1.8 billion public-private effort in East Baltimore, which dates to 2001, has been criticized for failing to deliver on its promise of a thriving neighborhood, anchored by the biotechnology industry and generating some 6,000 jobs. Critics charge that employment and spots at the new neighborhood school have primarily benefited those outside the community.
Demolition has readied the ground for new homes, but many have yet to be built and there has been debate about whether enough affordable units are being built in the area, which is bounded by Patterson Park Avenue, Madison Street, Broadway and railroad tracks.
But EBDI has wrapped up the legally and politically difficult process of acquiring 2,000 properties on behalf of the city and relocating 750 families and businesses. Just four people remain on the real estate team, down from 22 at one time.
Since 2011, a separate nonprofit, East Baltimore Community School Inc., has governed the area's new school, a public K-8 charter school run by the schools of education at Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities. TRF Development Partners and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) have been brought on to complete rehabilitations for 40 rowhomes in the next 12-18 months. The nonprofit Humanim now performs workforce training in the area. A security team is expected to spin off into a private company in the next year.
"There's an awful lot of work that's happened, and EBDI has been doing that work," said Sean Closkey, president of TRF Development Partners. "It's like … a relay race. They've run the first couple of laps around the track, and they're handing us the baton."
Those involved said providing support to families for five years after relocation was central to the redevelopment mission, which was envisioned as more than a brick-and-mortar real estate transaction. Starting a school also was necessary to ensure the long-term strength of the neighborhood, they said.
"From my perspective, what it means in one word is success," said Sophie Dagenais, director of the Baltimore civic site at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a major funder of the initiative. "EBDI certainly wasn't meant to go for the long term. … You get something going … and then you transfer."
"EBDI is a strong vehicle for development. But EBDI can't be expected to do everything," said Rob English, supervising organizer of BUILD. "They have selected organizations with strong track records in Baltimore to help fulfill the long-term vision — not just bricks and mortar but creating community."
The nonprofit partners working in the area now weren't there at the project's start, and without EBDI's commitment they would have been less likely to step in, said 12th District Councilman Carl Stokes, who sits as a nonvoting member of EBDI's board.
"I do not think it could have happened unless EBDI started the acquisition [and] relocation. It pulled everyone together into this and not only got the ball rolling, but has carried the ball most of the way," Stokes said.
EBDI's move into the back seat could help its public image, said Richie Armstrong, a community organizer with Community Churches United who has criticized the project for not including local residents in the planning process or allocation of jobs.
"It's probably a positive thing going in a new direction because EBDI took a lot of heat for the things they didn't accomplish and didn't get done," he said.
The 2012 master plan developed by the Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, the collection of private companies selected in 2004 as the site's master developer, calls for a central park, community school, 2,100 housing units, about 122,000 square feet of retail and almost 2 million square feet of commercial space.
The first lab building opened in 2008, an apartment complex with graduate student housing in 2012, a Walgreens on the first floor of a parking garage this fall, and a building for Maryland's Department of Public Health is slated for completion in June.
The recession slowed development at the site, making it more difficult to find financing for housing and biotech tenants for the commercial space.
About a third of the site's housing is to be affordable for low-income families,
So far, Forest City-East Baltimore Partnership has finished about 200 affordable units, said Scott Levitan, development director for the group, which is developing the site's first 31 acres.
Donald Gresham, who lives in the area and founded the Community Housing and Relocation Work Group, said his organization plans to reach out to TRF with its questions about affordable housing and how community residents can be more directly involved, but he is skeptical that it will have results.
"We'll meet with them just to try to build a dialogue with them, but to us, it's a waste of our time," he said. "They'll become puppets of EBDI."
EBDI Chairman Thurman Zollicoffer said his organization is now focused on making sure people move back into the still largely empty area.
"I am — this is me personally — incredibly anxious to start seeing the residential portion come online and seeing new taxpayers, new residents start moving back into East Baltimore," he said.
"To the extent there are other people better equipped to do … the job and will allow us to focus on other aspects of our core mission, that's what we're doing," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done at EBDI and to say that we're wrapping up is a misnomer. We're in a new phase. … There's been a lot of outcry to replace the residents, and that's what we're focusing on now."
Shea said EBDI will be involved in approving plans for housing from developers, and will "pound on them" to make sure they are delivered quickly and include a mix of units that match the goal of an economically diverse neighborhood.
He said EBDI wants to expand its partnership with TRF and BUILD to potentially 200 housing units, representing about 20 acres of the site. Unlike Forest City, he said, those organizations have experience providing quality housing for low-income residents.
EBDI will also remain involved as a conduit for funding and an enforcer of other community agreements.
"What we promised people we would do is to really create a lot of vibrancy," Shea said. "Someone has to be accountable for that, and that someone is us."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun