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Troubled Reservoir Hill apartment complex to be razed

A troubled Reservoir Hill property that came to be known as "Murder Mall" will be demolished under an agreement that's left some residents relieved but others worried about where they'll go.

Baltimore Housing officials have been trying for at least four years to oust the company that owns Madison Park North Apartments and move the residents out, but the owner brought several challenges in court. The two sides finally reached a settlement last month.

Residents say they've been told they have four months to find places to live, and city officials said the 202-unit complex would be razed 10 months after the last tenant leaves.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said this is the latest step in a continuing effort to improve the quality of life in the Reservoir Hill community, as well as elsewhere in Baltimore.

"We have to be unrelenting in our efforts to provide quality, affordable and safe housing options for all Baltimore City residents," the mayor said in a statement. "My focus over the next several months will be the successful relocation of all Madison Park North residents, total clearance of the site and the development of an exciting new mixed-use community."

Tricap Management controls Madison Park North Apartments Ltd., which owns the complex. Al Barry, principal of AB Associates, a land-use planning firm in Baltimore whose clients include Tricap — said the property owner will demolish the property and is eager to work toward redevelopment.

"The owner has been cooperating for the past nine months to reach an aggrement with [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] and the city for the tenants to be relocated, and the owner is looking forward to, once that is under way, to begin a redevelopment process for the property, which is clearly what the neighborhood has been looking for," Barry said.

The subsidized complex — dubbed by residents and even city officials as "Murder Mall" — has been the site of drug sales, stabbings and shootings in the years since its construction in the early 1970s. The marquee at the entrance to the complex hails a "unique residential and business community," and storefronts are on the ground level of several apartment buildings. But these days, most are shuttered.

While some nearby Baltimore neighborhoods such as Bolton Hill have seen a rebirth, Reservoir Hill continues to struggle. And to Councilman Nick Mosby, who lives across the street from the complex, the demolition of the 44 buildings on the sprawling 8-acre complex is a relief.

"It's critically important for people to feel safe when they rest their head at night," Mosby said. "Because of terrible mismanagement over decades, the folks of Madison Park North have not had the opportunity to experience that on a nightly basis."

Many residents felt stuck in the complex because their housing vouchers couldn't be transferred, unlike some voucher programs, he said.

"It's an opportunity to springboard them into better housing," Mosby said. "The motivation behind this is really providing folks with quality and affordable housing, which is a human right in 2014."

Residents — some of whom banded together and filed a lawsuit in April — say they've had to live with violence, faulty electrical wiring, and infestations of rodents and bugs. They learned about the agreement to tear down the complex at a recent meeting at a nearby recreational center.

Many said they were looking forward to a move, even if they were a bit uneasy about what might come next. Darron Hill, 24, has spent much of his life living at the complex with his mother. Sitting on an air-conditioning unit outside their apartment, he said he had mixed feelings about the demolition.

"It's a lot of housing being taken away. It's where a lot of us grew up," he said. "It's hard to adapt to another area."

But he saw positives. "The good thing is, people get to expand their horizons."

Rosalyn Gillian, 53, has lived at the complex since it opened, and raised her three children here. She remembers when fences were built around the property 21 years ago to prevent drug deals on the property. Instead, she and her neighbors felt like caged animals.

"I'm glad it's closing," Gillian said. "It's about time, because of the killing and drugs and all."

Dominic Bromell, 29, said he didn't know where his family might end up.

"I'm happy, very happy," he said, holding his 2-month-old son, Zion, in his arms as he spoke. "There's a lot of drug dealing going on around here. I've got a newborn son, and I don't want him growing up around that. He'll have a better chance of being somebody.

"We're going to find the best neighborhood we can and take advantage of it," he said.

Richard Gwynallen, associate director of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, said the group will be monitoring the situation to see that the residents find new homes. The group has worked for years with the residents to try and negotiate better living conditions on the property, he said.

He said city and federal officials have a responsibility to ensure that the residents have new housing.

"At this point, our primary concern is that the residents are offered a relocation strategy that is very competitive, and that they end up in a better housing situation," Gwynallen said. "This happened because the housing situation they were in ended up substandard."

Currently, 186 of the 202 units are occupied, according to city officials.

The majority of the residents are expected to receive vouchers that will allow them to move anywhere in the country. If they stay in Baltimore, they will receive relocation benefits from the city and federal government. Details about those benefits weren't immediately available.

The agreement was finalized between the city, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Tricap Management on July 14. It calls for services to the residents to continue uninterrupted during the relocation period.

City officials said they will work with the company to identify a team to undertake the redevelopment.

The effort to clear the Madison Park North site is part of a broader city strategy to encourage reinvestment, stronger code enforcement, more rehabilitation and more targeted incentives for homebuyers and developers, according to Tania Baker, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Housing.

"Throughout the city, vacant and blighted properties are being demolished, rehabilitated or redeveloped, to create opportunities for future mixed income development, making way for safer communities, new housing and green space opportunities for families who want to live and work in Baltimore," Baker wrote in an email.

The city first moved four years ago to eliminate the Madison Park North complex when Commissioner Paul Graziano sought to revoke its multifamily dwelling license. Around that time, police officers had come before housing officials at a hearing to testify about rampant crime and drug dealing there.

Tricap Management tried to fight the action in court but recently dropped the case before a decision was issued by the state's high court, the Court of Appeals.

Tricap has said that it made security improvements. And in court, the company argued that the city "did not present substantial evidence that crime [there] is any worse than the surrounding neighborhood or other similarly situated complexes." The company also argued that the city's requirements were difficult to comprehend and follow, and that it had not been given due process.

Mary McNamara Koch, an attorney representing the resident plaintiffs in the Baltimore Circuit Court case, said the lawsuit is continuing. Residents, including 32 adults and their children, also are suing two private security firms, accusing guards of retaliating when they raised concerns about problems at the complex.

"We're very happy that our clients are going to have an opportunity to have hopefully much better living conditions than they have been exposed to at Madison Park North," she said.

Mike Molla, vice president of operations for Maryland Institute College of Art, said clearing the site and relocating the residents presents an opportunity for redevelopment in a key section of the city. Many of MICA's students and faculty live in Reservoir Hill, drawn to the affordable houses with large floor plans.

"It's a gateway between a number of anchor institutions," he said of Madison Park North site. "It's quite exciting to think about what it can become.

"This a large property that represents a symbol of change."

Madison Park North is not the first community to be replaced.

At the site of the violence-plagued Park Heights complex known as "The Ranch," new apartments for the elderly opened nearly six years after the old structures were torn down. The 60-unit Renaissance Gardens opened to low-income seniors in January.

The city began construction on the former site of the Uplands apartments in Southwest Baltimore in 2010. It took six years to break ground on the 63-acre community after the rundown, low-income complex was razed. A grand opening of the community, which offers a combination of affordable homes and market-rate and subsidized rental units, was held last summer.

In Reservoir Hill, news that the Madison Park North Apartments would soon be gone gave new hope to Carl Young, secretary of the Historic Mount Royal Terrace Association, another neighborhood advocacy group.

The area has much to offer, with close-knit neighbors and proximity to "Druid Hill Park, downtown, cultural centers and beautiful architecture," Young said. But the well-documented crime and violence at the complex has held the community back and terrorized those who live there and in the surrounding neighborhood, he said.

"That's what scares people, that's what keeps people locked in their houses at night," Young said. "What people are talking about is a sense of relief. We've been anticipating this for well over a decade."

Baltimore Sun reporters Ian Duncan and Carrie Wells contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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