When Jim Griffin first saw Poppleton, the developer knew investing in the West Baltimore neighborhood was a gamble. If he fixed up a vacant house, would anyone buy it?
Most of the homes in his target area — the 1000 block of West Fayette Street — were vacant, occupied by squatters or used by drug dealers. Griffin’s company fixed up one home at a time, selling the first few at a loss to lure buyers and reset the housing market.
Recently it sold a three-story rowhouse for nearly $400,000.
It was a watershed moment for Griffin, who wanted to move aggressively and build rowhouses on an entirely vacant block of city-owned property down the street, but he discovered he can’t touch the land because of a 2006 deal the city struck with a different developer, New York-based La Cité.
“You’re holding this whole community handcuffed,” Griffin said of the city’s deal with La Cité.
Some residents and others want Baltimore to scrap the deal and start fresh, but the city’s top housing official said that’s not feasible.
It was supposed to be straightforward. La Cité promised to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Poppleton, building modern, mixed-use buildings aimed primarily at young, white-collar workers. In return, the city would acquire more than 500 properties, relocate residents, compensate business owners, and demolish every structure.
Nearly two decades later, La Cité still hasn’t completed its first phase of redevelopment. Meanwhile, the city has spent at least $15 million to assemble the land, creating acres of dead space in one of the city’s oldest Black neighborhoods. To the anger of some Poppleton residents, the city owns the barren land, but La Cité controls its future and can sell those development rights for a profit — even if it has done nothing.
Last month, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City agreed to pay La Cité $550,000 for the rights to develop three abandoned properties along West Saratoga Street, according to spokeswoman Ingrid Antonio. La Cité claimed in a news release that the city-owned properties are worth $1.1 million, but the state assesses their value at $165,400.
The deal with La Cité was made under the administration of Democratic Mayor Martin O’Malley, long before Alice Kennedy became the city’s top housing official in 2020. As commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, Kennedy said her agency would never make a similarly open-ended deal today, but she can’t change the past.
“The city has a legally binding contract that cannot simply be terminated,” she said.
The city tried to cancel the deal in 2012 after six years passed with nothing built, but La Cité sued in federal court and won. The city’s law department has reevaluated the deal since then, Kennedy said, and she believes it makes the most sense to work with La Cité while advocating on behalf of Poppleton’s residents.
Kennedy pointed out that her agency successfully negotiated changes to the deal that benefit the community, including an amendment last year that spared the home of Sonia Eaddy.
Eaddy and her family were one of the 137 households that the city promised to relocate for La Cité’s development, but Eaddy stood firm for two decades. She refused to cede her three-story rowhouse on North Carrollton Avenue, even as the city pushed out her neighbors and demolished their homes.
Eaddy was relieved when La Cité removed her property from its development plans, but it was a lonely and expensive victory. The city paid La Cité $260,000 to amend the deal, and Eaddy is the only remaining homeowner in the original development footprint. She is also president of her neighborhood association, Poppleton Now.
At a July 2022 news conference announcing that her home was spared, Eaddy hugged La Cité President Dan Bythewood and said her community could work with the developer. That goodwill has since evaporated.
To Eaddy, scrapping the deal with La Cité is not only a legal matter — it’s a moral imperative. She said she cannot sit and watch her neighborhood decay for another two decades.
“We want that land back,” Eaddy said at a neighborhood meeting last month at Morning Star Baptist Church, where 25 people gathered to discuss Poppleton’s future. “We want homeownership. We want town homes that’s affordable.”
La Cité was not invited to the meeting and Bythewood did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
La Cité does plan to build rowhouses in Poppleton, though it’s unclear when that will happen. According to its website, La Cité plans a mix of office space, hotels, retail and at least 1,700 housing units, including 321 rowhouses.
So far, La Cité has built a 262-unit apartment complex called Center\West that opened in 2019, after several delays, and has struggled to retain residents. The next building slated for construction — an age-restricted building for older residents — has yet to break ground.
Brent Flickinger, a former city planner who retired in 2021, attended last month’s meeting and said many of La Cité's plans don’t make sense for Poppleton, which traditionally has been a neighborhood of rowhouses.
“This development is crazy, frankly,” Flickinger said. “Why the city is agreeing to help with this is ridiculous.”
The city had opportunities to cancel the deal, according to Baltimore attorney Tom Prevas. From 2017 until last month, Prevas served on the city’s planning commission. Under state law, Maryland governments must regularly review deals involving eminent domain, and in 2018, the City Council considered a bill to review the deal with La Cité. The review required a vote by the planning commission.
Prevas said the city had a responsibility to determine whether the deal was still in the public’s interest, but the issue was never seriously discussed.
“The city sidestepped that by calling it a minor amendment and pushing it through,” said Prevas, who voted to extend the deal, a decision he now regrets.
With no more residents in the footprint of La Cite’s current development area, it’s unclear whether the city would have a similar opportunity to review the deal.
John Bullock, the Democratic councilman representing Poppleton, is holding out hope for a compromise. He wants La Cité to cede some land in Poppleton to other developers, but stopped short of calling for legal action.
“It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation,” Bullock said. “I think we can come to a resolution where everyone can walk away with some positive benefits.”
There are other developers interested in Poppleton. Black Women Build, a nonprofit developer run by Shelley Halstead, is renovating a block of 11 historic alley homes on Sarah Ann Street.
The small, two-story rowhouses date back to the 1870s and their interiors needed to be gutted and rebuilt. Work began in June, Halstead said, and she expects to finish in a few months, with residents moving in by early next year. The homes will be sold for $100,000 or less, she said, and the hope is to bring back some former residents.
Those properties were originally pledged to La Cité, but the city reassigned the homes to Black Women Build through the 2022 amendment. As part of the deal, Halstead said she had to pay $24,000 to La Cité for the right to redevelop the block.
To Griffin, the developer on Fayette Street, the Poppleton situation is past the point of compromise.
“I still don’t quite understand a 20-year arrangement,” Griffin said. “You’re taking people’s houses, you’re putting them in a worse shape than they were in before, and you still cannot do anything? Something is wrong with that picture to me.”
Griffin is the special projects officer for HomeFree-USA, a Maryland-based homeownership nonprofit he founded with his wife in 1994. He said HomeFree-USA has renovated homes in several cities across the country.
“West Baltimore is a gem in our view,” Griffin said.
So far, HomeFree-USA’s project manager, Kolawole Egunjobi, has renovated 12 of the 16 vacant West Fayette Street properties it purchased from the city, Griffin said.
”We do not sell to investors,” Egunjobi said. “You cannot do that and stabilize a community.”
Macey Cozzolino and her partner, Chris Mayer-Bacon, purchased one of the newly renovated rowhouses. The pair are in their early 30s and had been renting in Mount Vernon. Homes in Charles Village were too expensive, they said, and homes in Pigtown were too small. Then they saw the listing in Poppleton, a neighborhood that sounded vaguely familiar.
It had a large kitchen, a parking pad and a patio. It was near Camden Yards and close to downtown, plus there was easy access to the highway. They bought their home for $390,000, which was a boon to their new neighbor, Yvonne Gunn.
In Griffin’s telling, it is the 75-year-old Gunn who saved the block, not him or HomeFree-USA. He recalled seeing her home sandwiched between vacants around 2015, when he was considering whether to invest. A patch of well-tended flowers caught his eye.
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“I said, that’s some stability here,” Griffin recalled. “We took a gamble.”
Gunn is glad he did. The state recently assessed Gunn’s three-story rowhouse at just $40,000. Because of the property sales on her block, now her home could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The home has been in Gunn’s family for nearly a century. Every Christmas, relatives return to Poppleton to celebrate. Gunn said she and her husband, William “Skip” Gunn, moved there in 1985, at which point the neighborhood was already in decline.
For decades, they lived between vacant homes, Gunn said, so she was excited about La Cité’s redevelopment plans. As recently as 2018, Gunn still supported Bythewood’s vision. She and her husband wrote a letter that year to the City Council, praising Bythewood and his tenacity.
But with little built since then, Gunn said it’s time for the city to make the land available to developers like HomeFree-USA.
She believes Poppleton is poised for a return to its past, when families knew one another and neighbors looked out for one another. The only thing standing in the way, Gunn said, is the city’s deal with La Cité.
“It’s a dirty deal that the city gave away all of the land in Poppleton and this community has no say-so as to what is to happen,” she said. “It’s terrible what Baltimore did to Poppleton.”