Elected officials from East Baltimore want to block the $1.8 billion urban renewal project in Middle East until more neighborhood residents and minority contractors are hired and displaced residents can benefit from the revitalization.
Members of the Eastside Leadership Team criticized the 88-acre project for what they said was slow progress and a poor record of minority hiring during a news conference Wednesday outside the offices of East Baltimore Development Inc, the nonprofit leading the large-scale redevelopment just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The group of state senators, delegates, City Council members and former officials said they intend to halt agreements and block legislation, permits and zoning changes needed to advance the plans. They also intend to sign on as plaintiffs in an existing lawsuit against state agencies to stop a $99 million state health laboratory that's under construction on the site.
"We're giving EBDI a vote of no confidence," and calling for a stop to new construction, contracts or hiring, "until our goals are met," state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden said.
The project displaced 800 families from what was a blighted neighborhood. Some moved to newly rehabbed rowhouses nearby.
Hundreds of houses were razed to make way for 1,500 to 2,000 new and renovated residential units and up to 1.7 million square feet of commercial space. One office building and several apartment buildings have been completed.
An additional $300 million worth of projects are under construction or nearing completion, including the state health laboratory, a 351-unit graduate student housing tower and a garage with a Walgreens drugstore. Plans also call for a state-of-the-art elementary school, a grocery store and restaurants, additional office buildings, a park lined with loft-style apartments and a hotel.
But over 10 years the work, for which EBDI has partnered with Johns Hopkins and master developer Forest City East Baltimore Partnership, has yet to deliver promised new housing and jobs, critics said.
Chris Shea, president and chief executive of EBDI, stood along with spectators during the event. Afterward, he said that the organization has listened to community concerns and has worked to improve its hiring practices.
"Their frustration is genuine. It's real," Shea acknowledged. "EBDI understands and supports the elected officials."
On Wednesday, the Eastside Leadership Team joined the chorus of criticism for the project.
"We're going to slow this train down," state Del. Talmadge Branch said. "There are too many contractors bringing in employees from other parts of Maryland."
Branch likened the project to "having an event in your backyard, but you can't come to the event. You can't come to the party. You can't work and businesses here can't get a contract. … It's not right and it's not fair."
He cited an analysis of hiring for the state's lab project that showed that of the $57.5 million in contracts awarded so far, only $13.4 million went to businesses in Baltimore and only $4.4 million to local minority-owned businesses. To reach the original inclusion goals laid out for the overall redevelopment project, an additional $28 million of contracts would need to be awarded to minority businesses, Branch said.
Shea called the goals "aspirational," saying in an email that the agreement was laid out before the EBDI was even formed and a developer chosen.
"The elected officials and EBDI mutually agreed last fall that it was obsolete and needed to be revised and brought into alignment with the actual development," Shea wrote.
He said EBDI has been working with elected officials to draft a revision.
With the millions of dollars flowing into the neighborhood, City Councilman Warren Branch said, "there should be no one in East Baltimore looking for employment. I'm tired of seeing … outside contractors and outside workers flourishing while the community suffers, overlooked as if they don't exist. We want our fair share of construction contracts."
Councilman Carl Stokes noted that more than 80 percent of the workers who built the soon-to-open graduate student apartment tower lived outside the city, with less than 8 percent from East Baltimore.
"We are standing in solidarity that the project cannot go any further," said Council PresidentBernard C. "Jack" Young. "We want jobs, and meaningful jobs."
Michael Saunders, who grew up in the neighborhood and came to Wednesday's event, said afterward that he had expected more opportunity for his construction business, Maryland Roll Off Recycling. But he received only one contract, two years ago, he said.
The EBDI's Shea said minority contractors from the neighborhood will be overseeing several coming projects, including the construction of the school, hotel and retail project and the renovation of 25 vacant rowhouses into market-rate housing.
One minority contractor said he believed EBDI already has a strong program for inclusion on the projects within the site that are in its control. But, he added, EBDI does not control hiring on all the projects.
Pless B. Jones, head of P&J; Contracting Co. Inc, said his company worked on site clearance for the elementary school project. He in turn hired about a half-dozen minority subcontractors and people from the community.
"EBDI itself has one of the best programs for inclusion," he said. "When you get a job, they say hire people from the community that come through their pipeline. Some people are frustrated because they see the work going on and they don't have a job. But it takes more than just the East Baltimore project to keep people working."
Susan Woods, spokeswoman for the state Department of General Services, which is overseeing construction of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene lab, said state officials have been in close communication with state and city officials through the process of planning and constructing the facility.
"We're very surprised by the events today," she said.