A testy reception for new East Baltimore plans

Scott Levitan, development director of the 88-acre redevelopment project north of Johns Hopkins Hospital, was ready Thursday night to present area residents with new ideas for the project — a new park, a new school, a grocery store and other amenities designed to breathe fresh life into the slow-moving development to make it a better place for them to live and for the new residents he seeks to attract.

But he was stopped in his tracks.

In a meeting that lasted nearly two hours, more than three dozen residents politely but firmly vented long-held suspicions of Hopkins and of the process that has razed most of their neighborhood and relocated its residents.

And they voiced their impatience with Levitan's employer, Forest City East Baltimore Partnership, because they felt they were being handed something that had already been decided — without them.

"We're the low man on the totem pole," said Johnny Coleman, a member of the Middle East Truth and Reconciliation Council, a community group set up to deal with the developers. "We're gonna get what they give. This group has been screwed royally. The die has been cast."

Levitan tried to say that the meeting was just the beginning of a process of soliciting community input about the recommendations. But when he began to describe the surveys and focus groups used to inform the proposed master plan revisions, the meeting began to unravel. Almost no one in the room had been asked to participate and no one had seen the results.

"A lot of people are hostile because they haven't been made familiar with this survey," said Nia Redmond, who leads the Truth and Reconciliation Council. "In the future, I think you all need to do a better job of communicating."

In the end, Levitan agreed to send residents paper or electronic copies of his firm's recommendations, and the residents agreed to return in two weeks to ask questions — and to be heard.

"We're tired of being talked to," Middle East resident Phyllis A. Hubbard said.

Community suspicions are not the only headwinds the project has encountered since it began in 2002. Described by the developers as the largest redevelopment project ever undertaken in Baltimore, at an estimated $1.8 billion, it also has been hobbled by the recession, the housing meltdown and, not least, perceptions among prospective residents that East Baltimore's Middle East neighborhood is a dangerous place to live.

Almost 400 families were moved from the area as its old row houses 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. Only two market-rate residences have been purchased, Forest City says.

On the commercial side, just one of two research laboratory buildings planned for opening by 2010 has been built. It is 85 percent leased, but tough financing conditions and a changed bio-medical research industry have delayed and altered plans for further development, according to the developer. Of the thousands of permanent jobs originally promised, only about 400 have materialized.

But Levitan, in an interview, remained upbeat.

"As miserable as the recession was for everybody, it actually presented an opportunity for us all to … figure out what was working and what wasn't and possibly recalibrate where we wanted to go," he said.

Elected leaders briefed on Forest City's recommendations seemed cautiously optimistic about them in interviews before Thursday night's meeting.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents the 12th District, said area residents were disappointed that so little of the new housing promised residents had been built.

"It did seem in some ways to not honor the commitment that people thought they had," said Stokes, who acknowledged friction between the local community and Hopkins.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young also said the community was unhappy about the slow pace of housing construction. But he said he was encouraged by the new plans.

"They want more housing, and we're going to push that," he said, adding that he was also happy about the school that is planned.

"Once complete [the project] will be the new East Baltimore we all want — safe, clean and affordable," Young said. "Everybody can live in this environment — incomes of all levels living together."

Christopher Shea, CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit established by the city in 2002 to guide the project, said he's gratified that the new "civic amenities," including the school, have become clearly defined anchors for the next stage of development.

Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, also applauded the new recommendations.

"As community leaders and residents consider these proposed changes, it is important they know that the amenities — the park, the new school, the market — are for them as much as they are for new residents."

Once home to several thousand working- and middle-class African-Americans, many of them homeowners, the Middle East neighborhood was weakened in recent decades by disinvestment, abandonment, increasingly concentrated poverty, drug dealing and other crime.

Of the 1,200 homes in the 88-acre redevelopment zone, only about 400 were still occupied. The developers, with the help of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, bought most of the homes and relocated the families. Only 31 families chose to remain.

The original master plan called for the construction of about 1,500 new homes anda 1.7 million square feet of laboratory, office and retail space, including a grocery and pharmacy, to serve the community and the tens of thousands who work on the Hopkins campus.

One lab building opened in 2008. High-rise housing for graduate students is nearing completion. Construction of a 1,400-car parking garage is ready to begin, and a new state public health lab is planned.

Faced with the perception that East Baltimore is a dangerous place to live, Johns Hopkins and EBDI two years ago asked Forest City to come up with solutions.

The developer enlisted a battery of consultants, including Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates, an international planning and design firm; development designers Williams Jackson Ewing; and Baltimore-based marketing advisers Carton Donofrio Partners.

The consultants recommended the new amenities for current and potential new residents.

"I think it was really clear to all of us that we had to have an amenity base that was going to make not only the East Baltimore people either remain or return to the project area, but [that] would also attract market-rate people who also wanted to move into East Baltimore," Levitan said.

Among the recommendations:

•A six-acre park of grass and trees, three blocks long and 150 feet wide, along Wolfe Street from Ashland to Biddle. It would include space and infrastructure for a farmers' market, festivals, concerts, outdoor movies and sports, including a measured running path. Its northern end could one day link to a new MARC or local transit rail station.

•A "gateway" block at Madison and Wolfe, with a 150-room hotel, a grocery store, health club, and retail stores and restaurants.

•A public K-8 school and family center with ties to Johns Hopkins and Morgan State universities. The school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014, drawing students from new homes to be built nearby and from neighborhoods outside the redevelopment zone.

•The recommendations call for the construction of 1,500 to 2,000 housing units of various types, with some "affordable" units but the majority sold or rented at market rates.

Even if all the original residents came back, the project's success would still require that it attract hundreds of individuals and families from the Hopkins community and elsewhere.

To that end, Forest City's consultants launched an effort to determine what those constituencies saw as their ideal urban community — and what it would take for them to consider living in East Baltimore.

In focus groups and email and phone surveys, the consultants found that, overwhelmingly, their target audience was looking for a "walkable" community with ample green space, a relaxing atmosphere with athletic opportunities, nighttime activity and a top-ranked school.

The biggest barrier for this audience was crime. Sixty-nine percent of those who rejected the location cited "risk and safety" as the reason.

The consultants also concluded that the new community needed a "story" or "theme." After more research they determined that the theme that most appealed to the Hopkins community and the broader Baltimore residents surveyed was "wellness."

"This park could play a very important role in having … a location for a farmers' market, for clinics, for yoga on a large scale, for basketball clinics," Levitan said.

The development also needed a name. City planners' name for the area is Middle East. But the consultants concluded that moniker had too many negative associations.

"'Middle East' creates a marketing challenge," Levitan said. "We don't need any more challenges to trying to market the community in East Baltimore."



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