A two-time former head of the state's housing department has been named to take over the leadership of a major redevelopment effort in East Baltimore near Johns Hopkins Hospital, re-energizing efforts to bring homes to an area officials have been trying to transform for more than a decade.
East Baltimore Development Inc. announced Thursday that Raymond A. Skinner, who retired in August after seven years as head of the Department of Housing and Community Development, was chosen to lead the nonprofit, which is in charge of the $1.8 billion effort to bring new buildings, biotechnology jobs and residents to the impoverished neighborhood.
Political leaders and residents have complained for years that the development has not lived up to its promises to build or remake some 1,500 new residences there.
The selection of Skinner is meant to help advance plans for housing in the area, said Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr., chairman of EBDI's board.
"His first and foremost duty is to help us get some residential houses built and start really laying the groundwork for a really strong community fabric," said Zollicoffer, who served as city solicitor under then-Mayor Martin O'Malley.
Christopher Shea, who joined EBDI in 2007 and has led the organization since 2009, retired Jan. 9; he could not be reached for comment. Talk of his departure began last summer, but Zollicoffer said Shea stayed on until the board had someone new in place.
The EBDI board pursued Skinner after learning he would be leaving his state post, Zollicoffer said.
Skinner, 67, was vetted by a search committee, as well as by the two major nonprofit stakeholders in the project, the Johns Hopkins University and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has reported investing more than $100 million since the start of the initiative through loans, guarantees, bond purchases and grants.
The EBDI board voted in favor of Skinner's hiring in December, offering him a two-year contract with a one-year renewal option, said Zollicoffer, adding that the hope is that time frame will allow Skinner to see the redevelopment through to its completion. He declined to disclose the salary.
Skinner, a Bowie resident who also served as housing secretary under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said he intended to semiretire and work as a housing consultant but was convinced he was the right person to help make a difference in the area, which has received extensive state support.
"It's an opportunity for me to use my experience and skills and contacts and political acumen to really further the goals and objectives of developing this community here in Baltimore," he said. "We're at a place with EBDI, and East Baltimore is at a place, where it's really poised to take off."
EBDI was founded in 2002. Its first plans for the area called for 1,500 new homes and 1.7 million square feet of laboratory, office and retail space, including a grocery and pharmacy.
About 740 families were relocated from the area as EBDI amassed properties in anticipation of the redevelopment, but the jobs and new buildings were slow to materialize as the recession set in, and plans were revised.
The first building, 278,000 square feet of life science offices, opened in 2008, followed by an apartment tower at 929 N. Wolfe St.
Activity picked up last year with the opening of the 720-student Henderson-Hopkins school and a $170 million lab for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Private groups working in the area also sought approvals for a hotel, a seven-story lab building and a park.
Financing for the new lab building, a 170,000-square-foot mix of labs and offices at 1812 Ashland Ave., closed in December and construction is set to start this month. A grocery store also could be on the way.
At the end of last year, more than 622 new housing units had been built, and some 350 were in the pipeline, according to EBDI.
"Because of Chris Shea's dedication to EBDI, the area is becoming a highly attractive mixed-income community with great homes, great jobs, a great school and great amenities," said Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels. "Without his determination, even in the face of recession and a national housing crisis, we would not be where we are today."
Still, many have been disappointed with the project.
City Councilman Carl Stokes, who has described the project as a "land grab," praised Shea and Skinner, but said he did not think a new leader would change the direction of the development to make it more answerable to the community.
"The community feels that the project's a failure, and I don't think it will improve any more in the next three years than it has in the past 15," Stokes said. "You go over there, you'll see new development that [master developer] Forest City has built, new development that the state of Maryland has built, new development that Johns Hopkins has built. You don't see housing and dog parks for the community."