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Residents still concerned about plans for East Baltimore

The developers of an 88-acre redevelopment project north of Johns Hopkins Hospital tried for the second time in two weeks Thursday night to present area residents with a new plan for refurbishing their neighborhood with a new park, pharmacy, school and other amenities — and once again were met with skepticism.

The residents questioned whether their needs were being considered in the project that began more than a decade ago and has razed a large portion of the neighborhood and relocated those who lived there. They repeatedly pushed the developers about whether residents would be priced out of new housing being built to improve the neighborhood.

"The neighborhood is going to be too expensive for the original community," said Nia Redmond, who leads the Middle East Truth and Reconciliation Council, a community group formed to keep an open dialogue with the developers. "They are not going to be able to afford to come back."

But despite a more than two-hour meeting where residents mostly vented their displeasure, the developers with Forest City East Baltimore Partnership said the meeting was productive. They want to hear residents' concerns so they can incorporate them into any plan, said Scott Levitan, development director for the project.

"This meeting we started a dialogue, and that is why we are here," Levitan said afterward.

Levitan tried last month to present plans to residents who instead refused to hear about surveys and focus groups used to come up with ideas they said they knew nothing about. So Levitan regrouped and got residents copies of the plan so they could discuss them at Thursday's meeting.

Residents still had some of the same concerns. The plan was weighed too heavily on the ideas of Johns Hopkins Hospital, a major stakeholder in the plan, some residents said.

Those who live on Broadway, close to the planned development but not part of it, complained that they weren't getting the same incentives as their nearby neighbors. But they too were being affected by rising rents and other costs that have come with improvements in the area.

Christopher Shea, CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit established by the city in 2002 to guide the project, worked to calm residents' concerns. He assured them that programs to ease property tax burdens and help them find affordable housing were in place to assure every resident who wanted to return could.

"They will not get gentrified out," Shea said. "We have the programs in place so that people won't get priced out of the neighborhood."

Nearly 400 families were moved from the area as old rowhouses were razed beginning in 2004. But only 219 of the planned 1,500 to 2,000 new or renovated housing units have been completed, most of them senior or rental housing.

Shea met with residents who live on Broadway after the meeting to talk about concerns they have about living so close to the project.

Levitan told the crowd the new plans for the corridor were just a draft and could be changed to meet residents' concerns.

It wasn't comforting to some residents who watched other Baltimore neighborhoods gentrify in the past with little concern for the people who lived there before.

"It seems to be a draft, but at the end of the day it becomes final," said Donald Gresham, who lived on Chester Street for more than 20 years before being relocated while the improvements are under way. "If we can't live in the place we historically belong it doesn't matter what we say."

Levitan said other meetings are planned, including one later this month.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

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