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Demolition of East Baltimore’s McGarvey Industrial Park marks first step of ‘Equality Equation’

When the hulking, abandoned McGarvey Industrial Park complex on Belair Road comes down Monday, the demolition not only eliminates a grimy eyesore, but signals the first step in a wave of change a Baltimore couple hopes to bring to this area south of Clifton Park.

Elizabeth and Pless Jones Jr. can claim credit for the building’s demise, as well as the broader vision for the more than 200 acres in the neighborhood that they hope to transform into a thriving community of homeowners.

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Their first step is building a workforce development training center where the blighted industrial complex currently stands. Over three phases, the Joneses want to develop a recreation center, health clinic, single-family homes and sustainable green space made from the hundreds of vacant lots in the neighborhood.

The hope to implement what they call the “Equality Equation" at a cost of $125 million to $200 million, leveraging their various connections to find private investors and drawing from state and local subsidies, grants and tax credits that apply to the mission.

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“We were motivated by trying to come up with a plan that not only mitigates poverty and distress in urban neighborhoods but also creates economic systems,” said Pless Jones, adding that he and his wife began working on the idea as early as 2017. “The ultimate goal is homeownership, the quickest mitigation of wealth disparity.”

Once college sweethearts at Virginia State University, the Joneses found their way back to one another a few years ago. Elizabeth‚ a systems engineer-turned-educator with a master’s degree in divinity, has designed and administered education programs for the federal bureau of prisons; Pless is the heir apparent to his father Pless B. Jones Sr.’s P&J Contracting Co., which specializes in building and demolition.

Elizabeth Jones, left, and Pless Jones, right, are married partners and managing members of The Equality Equation, a development company. They are planning to develop a 5 acre area in East Baltimore into an industrial park and affordable housing. The setting is near the intersection of Sinclair Lane and Belair Road. September 18, 2020
Elizabeth Jones, left, and Pless Jones, right, are married partners and managing members of The Equality Equation, a development company. They are planning to develop a 5 acre area in East Baltimore into an industrial park and affordable housing. The setting is near the intersection of Sinclair Lane and Belair Road. September 18, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

As the project’s stewards, the Joneses carefully selected the elements of their plan recognizing that neighborhood revitalization depends on the stability and involvement of the people who live there.

“We all love Starbucks and a good yoga session, but in those communities, those are signals that folks are about to be displaced,” Elizabeth Jones said. “These anchors are all about the health and wellness of that community.”

Pless Jones said they chose this area because when he drives into the city down Belair Road, the blighted McGarvey building is usually the first landmark he sees.

The project will bring activity to the McGarvey Industrial Park site that his father has owned since 2008. P & L Commercial Properties LLC, Pless Jones Sr.’s company, acquired the warehouse from Albert McGarvey for $390,433.

The Joneses have partnered with Baltimore City Community College and four neighboring community associations to raise the capital and planning needed to give rise to what will be called the Industrial Park for Workforce Development. Pless Jones Jr.’s company, CNI, has also secured permits for a convenience store and gas station on the site.

Baltimore City Community College President Debra L. McCurdy said in a statement that the institution will deliver training programs as well as GED classes at the center in an effort to expand access to jobs and education in East Baltimore, which has, for decades, seen little public or private investment.

Roger Campos, assistant secretary of the state housing department, said the state has few too resources — especially amid the coronavirus pandemic — to make much of a dent in the Equality Equation’s price tag. Still, initial state grants and investment can serve as important signals to third party investors, he said, and can jump start momentum.

“If there’s a possibility that the state can come in with some resources, that makes it more attractive for banks to come in and leverage it with more capital,” said Campos, adding that he encouraged the Joneses to partner with community associations, which often qualify for specific state grant programs.

Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corporation, said his group has collaborated with the Joneses, as have the South Clifton Park Community Association, the Belair-Edison Community Association and the New Broadway East Community Association. All have competing priorities in their respective neighborhoods, he added, but tend to agree on the overall vision.

“The McGarvey building has been problematic for some time, so any redevelopment of that parcel is welcomed by us,” Washington said. “Anything that helps eliminate blight and brings back a responsible use to the area is welcomed — anything that we can leverage to gain additional investment is welcomed.”

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Once work finishes on the workforce development building, Pless and Elizabeth Jones said they hope to have finished a master plan for the Broadway East neighborhood that includes broad demolition and stabilization efforts and plans to revitalize vacant lots in a sustainable way.

They hope to facilitate landscape improvements that include underground stormwater drains, tree canopies, seasonal community gardens and contributions from local artists.

The couple incorporated guidance from the Broadway East Greenprint, which mapped out how ambience and cooler temperatures can influence behaviors, especially in barren urban landscapes. It set the stage for the rest of the vision to come together, they said.

Elizabeth Jones said she hopes neighborhood residents take advantage of the planned workforce development programs so they can participate in the rebuilding of their community and ultimately purchase homes there.

“You can create a rich and diversified community without displacement,” she said. “It is a full-circle idea, and equality-centric. We really want to do something that hasn’t been seen before for legacy residents.”

City Councilman Robert Stokes, a Democrat, has lived in East Baltimore all his life and said the Joneses have his and his constituents' blessing.

“Right now, the developer is really listening to the community, and that doesn’t just happen everywhere,” Stokes said. “It’s been a long time since anyone said they wanted to do something there.”

Todd Scott, another East Baltimore native and the business development manager at the state housing department, said spacing out their efforts will help the Joneses attract interest from third-party backers.

“It sounds like a big project, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s working phase by phase, and it becomes more attainable to get the different funding that’s needed,” Scott said. “The need is critical for that area, and we have a good portion of funds already in the East Baltimore corridor, which helps us to continue being involved there.”

As for the husband and wife duo, they said they are grateful for the built-in connections they have as well as the new ones they have forged over the course of the last few years — including their own union. They spent 25 years apart only to make up for all the lost time now.

“It’s been crazy, but we enjoy each other’s company and working together is wonderful; PJ has a brilliant mind for seeing how the pieces fit together,” Elizabeth said of her husband. “To have myself in this whole other world and see these worlds fit together — that has been a gift.”

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