Some neighbors unhappy as plans coalesce for Cardinal Gibbons
By NATALIE SHERMAN and The Baltimore Sun
Jul 01, 2014 | 9:19 PM
A plan to build subsidized housing on the former Cardinal Gibbons School campus in Southwest Baltimore has met with opposition from some neighbors worried about traffic and property values.
The concerns have led to a dispute between the communities and neighboring Saint Agnes Hospital, which purchased the 32-acre property two years ago after the school closed with the intention of doing something to help the area.
Already the hospital and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation have raised $1.4 million to update the property's baseball field, where Babe Ruth played as a student at St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, which preceded Cardinal Gibbons on the Caton Avenue site. But even that seemingly innocuous plan is drawing questions from those who suggest a nearby Little League park needs improvement.
Construction could start next year on a planned four-story building with about 80 "workforce" apartments — set aside for lower-income households. It would be the first part of the broader redevelopment planned for the property.
William Greskovich, Saint Agnes vice president for capital projects, said the hospital and the Archdiocese of Baltimore want the property to serve the community, rather than seeing it used for something more commercial.
"We're very proud of the vision and watching it come together," said Greskovich, pointing to the creation of the new turf field. "We're doing this for the community."
But not everyone in the community — which also is battling plans for a CSX railroad facility nearby — sees it that way. The Cardinal Gibbons site is squeezed between the neighborhoods of Violetville, Wilhelm Park and Morrell Park, communities of free-standing houses and midcentury rowhouses on small streets bordered by industrial properties and busy thoroughfares.
Especially in Violetville — a close-knit, well-kept community — the plans prompted accusations that the hospital did not keep residents well-informed before zoning changes were approved last year, and concerns that the addition of new residents will lower property values and place stress on roads and community resources, such as the local school.
"They are forcing subsidized-housing residents into a stable neighborhood that's half on the edge of tipping over on its own," said Sean Tully, a past president of the Violetville Community Association. "Something like this could push us right over the edge into becoming a bad area.
"It's not well planned," added Tully, pointing to the addition of new residents on streets that could see more truck traffic and pollution from the planned CSX terminal. "I don't ever see them putting these in Guilford or Cross Keys."
Even the refurbished baseball diamond has failed to mollify opponents.
"The park would be great, but we have a park right now down the street that needs help," said Charles Singleton, president of the Violetville Community Association, which represents a neighborhood that once prided itself on its vigorous Little League.
Long-term plans for the site, to be called Gibbons Commons, envision a total of about 150 residences, including the new apartments and a conversion of the school's historic stone building into housing for grandparents raising children, Greskovich said.
The hospital, which will own the property while leasing to partners, also anticipates a fitness center, new medical offices and a commercial tenant — a Royal Farms has been discussed — on the corner of Wilkens Avenue and Desoto Road.
Greskovich said the hospital stands by the project and its communication with neighbors.
"We looked for the best community use of the land, and then we stepped up as a neighbor of 150 years," he said. "We didn't feel like more industrial warehousing would be an asset to this community."
The new apartments, an $18.9 million project to be financed in part by low-income housing tax credits, would be owned by Unity Properties, the housing arm of Bon Secours Hospital, which operates more than 600 apartments for seniors and families in the city, including Hollins Terrace and Benet House.
Units in the building would be set aside for families with up to 60 percent of the median household income for the Baltimore metro area, said Ned Howe, senior director of new business for Enterprise Homes, a unit of Columbia-based affordable housing firm Enterprise Community Partners, which is involved with the building's development.
The median household income in the three surrounding areas is $44,000, while the 60 percent income cap calculated by the state for the affordable workforce housing is $40,080 for a two-person household.
"It's not that we don't want low-income housing in our backyard, but we don't want low-income housing dumped in our backyard if you're not going to put the resources to support it," said Natasza Bock-Singleton, Charles Singleton's wife. "That was a point that we couldn't get across — that an 80-year-old woman raising a 15-year-old when the mom or dad has been incarcerated because of a crime or some other traumatic event would have … special needs."
The developers still need city approval of designs for the new building, to be located along the Desoto Road edge of the property, roughly on the site of a lot currently used as overflow hospital parking. Renderings show a stone base, light brown siding and an underground parking garage. The hospital would create a replacement parking lot along Caton Avenue, opposite Saint Agnes.
In a discussion last month, members of the city's design and architecture review panel expressed concern about the size of parking lots and how the field and green space would work, saying the designs currently resemble a "suburban campus" and that one of the buildings looks "too institutional," according to meeting minutes.
City Councilman Ed Reisinger, whose 10th District includes the area, said he supports the proposal, noting that it's better than leaving school property empty.
"I think some people are interpreting it incorrectly," he said. "To me, it's a good thing. You're increasing the population."
"I just feel like it's the right, compassionate thing to do," said Meghann Shutt, 34, of Violetville.
Marge Owen, longtime president of the Wilhelm Park Community Association, whose neighborhood is closest to the proposed apartments, said she thinks the project will have less of an impact than feared.
"I think it's worse to have a vacant property where unsavory people could hang out," she said. "It's going to be different for us, but I don't think it's going to be as intrusive as some people would like to think."