City celebrates new units in O'Donnell Heights

City officials aren't quite sure what to call the new development in Southeast Baltimore, but they turned out in force Tuesday to celebrate the first apartments completed on land that once held the sprawling O'Donnell Heights public housing complex.

Eventually, the 62-acre parcel is supposed to contain 925 homes — a mix of subsidized housing, market-rate apartments and owner-occupied units. The 76 "Key's Pointe" homes that officials celebrated Tuesday, half of which are to be rented at market rates, are to be followed by another 75, on which construction could begin as early as next year.


"I know I'm supposed to call it Key's Pointe," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new apartments, located off Boston Street. "It will take me a little while, but it's a beautiful transformation."

O'Donnell Heights, east of Interstate 95 near the city limits, was developed during World War II with cinder block and wood frame barracks for defense workers at Bethlehem Steel, Martin Aircraft and Edgewood Arsenal. It was converted to public housing after the war.


The buildings were last renovated in 1983. By 2001, when discussions started about remaking the area, the buildings had deteriorated, suffered high vacancy rates and saw some of the city's worst violence. Over the course of five years, the Housing Authority razed about 600 of roughly 900 units.

In 2010, the city selected Michaels Development Co. to come up with a plan for the site. Michaels, one of the nation's largest private developers of affordable housing, last year secured funding for the $20 million first phase of the project. That includes $13.4 million in low-income housing tax credits purchased by Bank of America. The company received an additional $2.4 million in state and federal money.

"One of the things we heard loud and clear was we needed to get something done," said Sasha-Gaye Angus, vice president of Michaels. "Key's Pointe really just represents the start of this transformation."

The city is working with private firms to build a site that will attract residents with varying income levels. The effort reflects a shortage of money available for public housing, and officials' desire to avoid high concentrations of poverty.


The city also is participating in a federal program to turn over hundreds of public housing units to private developers, who then make badly needed repairs. In those cases, the income mix will not change, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano said.

"In both cases it is about bringing private capital to the table," Graziano said. "There's just not enough, by any measure, public capital — especially public housing capital."

Officials said the new development, where some residents moved in this winter and which is now fully occupied, benefits from careful planning. The homes face the streets rather than barracks-style alleyways, there's a splash pad and a playground, and the master plan reserves space for parks.

"The prior development [was] kind of dehumanizing," Graziano said. "I think this community is built with the intent to respect the people who live in the community and I think the respect will be reciprocated."

Residents said they are concerned about the loss of subsidized units. Angus said about 200 families are on the waiting list for the units.

Ella Broadway is president of the O'Donnell Heights Tenants Council and the Housing Authority's Resident Advisory Board. She lives in one of the 300 units that has not been razed.

"We need homes. We know that," she said. "We know that we've been cheated out of a lot of homes in a lot of places."

About half of the units in the first phase are significantly subsidized, Graziano said — tenants pay no more than one-third of their incomes. The rest are currently rented at rates that reflect the local market — about $700 for a one-bedroom unit, which the city considers affordable housing.

Of the 76 apartments, 23 are reserved for people from O'Donnell Heights and 16 for the disabled.

"As we build out there will be probably a broader range of incomes," Graziano said. "The first couple of phases we really wanted to just get some presence here, get some new homes and then as we build it out more and more we can build the confidence in this community that it's actually happening."

There have been concerns about the new units — the developers have begun to add screen doors, for example, after complaints from residents. Broadway said the subsidized units tend to be fronted with vinyl siding, rather than brick.

"This is good right here, but each phase is going to be better and better if we have anything to do with it," Broadway told the crowd at the ribbon cutting.

In an interview later, she added: "We want these residents to be treated right. We don't want to be treated like we're second-place people."

Some said the demolition of the old buildings has helped improve the area. Among some of the new tenants, the new name — which reflects views of the Francis Scott Key Bridge — is taking hold.

Elizabeth Clark used to live in one of the units that was razed. She moved into her new home in January.

"It's like a new town," said Clark, 53. "I don't say I live in O'Donnell Heights. I say I live in Key's Pointe."

An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about how complete the project's first homes are.

Baltimore Sun reporters Colin Campbell and Georgia Carroll contributed to this article.

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