The Promised Uplands

Like so many visions of the future in Baltimore, it begins with a wrecking crane. On the Baltimore City Housing Authority's web site, you can watch a clip from WMAR-TV news dated Oct. 26, 2006. Then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, nine days before the gubernatorial election, is sitting at the controls of a Cat tractor, taking the first ceremonial shot at the 60-year-old, 979-unit Uplands Apartments complex. The tractor's shovel slams into a large chunk of a red-brick, two-story building at the corner of Swan Avenue and Frederick Road in West Baltimore. The fire department hoses down the dust. Cut to O'Malley, missing the hard hat he'd worn in the previous shot, surrounded by members of the local community and speaking of a new Uplands--a neighborhood, he says, where "people with different backgrounds, of different races, and, yes, with different incomes can raise children in decent housing."

The Housing Authority's vision for Uplands isn't getting much press attention these days, but if all goes as planned, by mid-2008, this small West Baltimore community is going to be the site of the massive redevelopment of what may be the largest undeveloped tract of urban land on the East Coast. What started in 2003 as a plan for building about 800 units on the 52 acres once part of the Uplands Apartments complex has expanded to a plan for building about 1,100 units on more than 100 acres, including 38 acres currently occupied by the New Psalmist Baptist Church, and six acres now part of the commercial triangle at the intersection of Edmondson Avenue and Old Frederick Road.


When the project is completed--in 2013, according to some estimates--the Uplands redevelopment will be a built-from-the-ground-up mix of mixed-income multiapartment mansionettes, rowhouses, freestanding houses, public parks, and greenways. It's a big developer's dream: on city-owned land, assisted by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding, financed by city bonds, surrounded by relatively prosperous neighborhoods to the west (Hunting Ridge and Ten Hills), and physically buffered from the more depressed sections of Edmondson Village to the east. According to Baltimore Housing head Paul Graziano, it's also what Baltimore needs: "a historic opportunity to build a new community, eliminate blight, and provide diversity."

O'Malley may have jumped the gun in that WMAR video. He took his chunk out of the old complex and went on to win the governorship, leaving the city and the redevelopment of Uplands in the hands of Mayor Sheila Dixon. The demolition, however, stopped immediately after the news cycle. Since 2004, former Uplands tenants have been engaged in a lawsuit against HUD and the city, which, they felt, had not provided them with the federally mandated housing assistance they were entitled to. Lawyers for Baltimore's Legal Aid Bureau, acting on behalf of former Uplands tenants, went to federal court to get a stay on demolition.


Now, four years after the city purchased the property from HUD, the deadlock may be over, and the real demolition can begin. On Dec. 19, a settlement for Uplands tenants was approved by the Baltimore City Board of Estimates. The newest iteration of the Uplands redevelopment provides that 175 of the planned 1,100 units will be offered to tenants who had lived in Uplands Apartments; the majority of the set-aside units would be available as rentals to tenants who earn up to 60 percent of the area's median income. (Baltimore-area median income as of March 2007, according to HUD, is $75,800.) The rest of the units will be offered for sale, 74 percent of them moderately priced and the remaining 26 percent available at top "market prices."

The shift to mixed income represents a major change for a community that once housed more than 2,000 lower-income tenants. In the 2000 U.S. Census, the median income for Uplands was $20,139. Of the tenants of the Uplands Apartments themselves, about half were living in government-subsidized Section 8 housing, according to information in the class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Uplands Apartments tenants.

Now all of the old tenants are gone, and the new neighborhood is yet to come.

It's easy to pass by Uplands on a daily commute down Route 40 without noticing it. To the north of Edmondson Avenue, there's the Williamsburg-style Edmondson Village Shopping Center, which in 1947 was one of the nation's first regional suburban shopping centers. To the south, a few large, homogenous dorm-style brick buildings are visible in a wooded area. A small building bears a battered overhang reading uplands apartments.

Turning off Old Frederick onto Manordene Road, though, the size of Uplands becomes more apparent. The winding lanes lead into the heart of a large, silent community. The buildings are big, homogenous, made of solid brick, built according to post-war specifications by local builder Ralph Chiaro. They're not pretty; on the other hand, they don't look like they're going to tip over any time soon. They're now neatly boarded up with plywood painted red. Trash and dead branches have piled up, and on occasion flocks of ravens congregate around the desolate, campus-style lawns. On rainy days, the streets flood. A few concrete barriers have been inserted at intersections, to scare off lost drivers. A dead body was found in the area in April 2007. There have been others before.

It's impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when someone decided that this urban wasteland was going to be turned into a new neighborhood. But for decades, Uplands Apartments had been emblematic of one of Baltimore's most pressing problems: the segregation of lower-income citizens in large tracts of deteriorating housing. Several decades ago, a group of well-connected developers with political connections let Uplands, and much of neighboring Edmondson Village, slip into decline. Now, a group of well-connected developers--Uplands Visionaries, they're called--hopes to turn Uplands into the kind of stable, racially and economically mixed neighborhood that many in Baltimore have always dreamed of, and they're relying on market forces to do it. While many of the details of the project are still up in the air, at least one thing is clear. Buried in the wooded edge of the city, and largely invisible to those living east of Martin Luther King Boulevard, the redevelopment of Uplands is a big deal--and a big gamble--for Baltimore's future.

By 2003, when the city acquired the site, developers' eyes had been on Uplands Apartments for several years. The property's long physical decline had been accompanied by mounting debts throughout the '90s, and it was foreclosed on in 1999, and HUD took it over in 2000. Numerous possibilities for the site were being bandied around by interested parties, and in 2002, the adjacent New Psalmist Baptist Church, already bursting at the seams with a congregation of more than 8,000, was mulling plans for a Christian-based living community on the Uplands Apartments lot. Commercial developers, as well as the city, considered filling the Uplands acreage with market-rate housing.

When HUD finally sold Uplands Apartments to the city in December 2003, for a nominal fee of $20, it stipulated that the city would have to include 74 percent "affordable housing," accessible to median-income Baltimoreans, in any project. Sandwiched between the rental units and the "market price" units are a block of units that would would be priced as affordable to people who earned 115 percent of the city's median income ($75,800 in 2007), while another group of units would be affordable to people who earned 80 percent of Baltimore's median income.

To realize the project master plan and summon a vision of what a new mixed-income Uplands might look like, the city called on two out-of-town contractors. Laurie Volk, of Clinton, N.J.'s Zimmerman/Volk Associates, which has worked on a number of recent projects in Baltimore, was put in charge of the marketing analysis. Architect David Dixon, of Boston-based Goody Clancy, was put in charge of the design. The vision for the new Uplands--an "urban village," as it's called--begins with them.


Speaking by phone from New Jersey, Volk explains that, when it comes to building neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore, the old rules of supply and demand don't apply.

Older development strategies, she says, targeted "fast-growth areas," under the assumption that houses would sell better in neighborhoods where more people were looking to move. Such strategies meant that large developers generally stayed away from places like Baltimore, with their urban woes and declining populations, and work in suburban areas. Now, in post-industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, mixed-income developers have developed complex methods for detecting "market niches."

This new approach, Volk says, "is focused more on potential than demand." To zero in on this potential, her firm generates information from data banks, both public and private. (One of the secret ingredients of its stat-crunching is the IRS, which "keeps data about where people are moving from, coordination potential, and lots of information about who they are," Volk notes.)

According to Volk, Baltimore should be looking to meet the needs of not just one market niche, but many. Her vision of the new neighborhood is a far cry, to say the least, from the earlier cultural and ethnic makeups of Baltimore neighborhoods. Nor does it involve the simple categories of lower, middle, and upper class that shaped and reshaped the city in the post-war era. The categories that she places potential homeowners in would leave old-school developers and slumlords scratching their heads. E-Type, for instance: "That's a target market, a key demographic, high-technology early adapters, single, who live in urban neighborhoods, more willing to take chances."

Over the phone from his office in Boston, architect David Dixon refers to the "old Baltimore" and the "new Baltimore." Old Baltimore, he says, is segregated and divided up into insular neighborhoods. The new Uplands he has designed will change all that. "Uplands is a model for future neighborhoods," David Dixon, no relation to Mayor Dixon, says. "It's an urban-suburban community." His version of the vision could be called market-based utopianism: an urban environment where people of different ethnicities and backgrounds coexist, without ever getting uncomfortable with one another.

When asked for a model of what the new Uplands will be, he cites Roland Park. It sounds like a curious choice, given the affluence--and racial homogeneity--of that area. But as an urban designer, Dixon is focused on the structural elements of Roland Park: trees, grass, winding cul-de-sacs, and a physical buffer zone against encroaching blight. "There's a large range of housing types" in Roland Park, he notes. "It's durable. It's been there a long time. There's a great variety of trees. It's the sort of neighborhood where people can count on permanence."


An illustration in the (still provisional) master plan of the winding streets of a new Uplands offers a view of what Dixon is talking about. There's a long, central strip of grass, where a sketched figure is walking a dog by what looks like a poplar tree. A young couple wanders, hand in hand, in the distance. A compact car slowly wends its way down the central boulevard. On the right hand side of the street, there's a minivan, presumably for the young parents. At the end of the street, a gated entrance is visible (although Dixon is careful to emphasize that Uplands will not be a gated community). An empty nester is walking down the left-hand side with his hands in his jean pockets. Duplexes line both sides of the street, and a multiapartment mansionette is visible in the background. Above the picture is the signature phrase: "Build Communities, Not Developments."

Zimmerman/Volk's number-crunching techniques further came to the conclusion that the new Uplands would support the 1,100-unit project. Initially, she says, nearby communities were worried that such density would result in overcrowding and deterioration, which were among the reasons Uplands Apartments became blighted in the first place. Volk contends that the new Uplands won't face the same problems.

The old Uplands community, she says, was not economically viable. "That sort of thing results in a concentration of poverty," Volk says. "It serves just one specific low-income demographic. That winds up attracting drug dealers, miscreants, who bedevil the poor people who are living there."

The old approach to development involved either building in growing communities, or trying to insert new housing in poorer areas. The new urbanist mixed-income approach taken with the Uplands project, Volk argues, offers the chance to start over from the ground up. "The new focus is on the rebuilding of a neighborhood," she says. "That doesn't just replace the old structures, but you don't just wind up with a lot of the same people with the same problems."

What one doesn't get from the visionaries is a sense that Uplands itself had any notable history of its own. But Uplands didn't start out as a blighted community.

If the Uplands Visionaries get what they're looking for--a mixed, stable, middle- class community--they'll be bringing the neighborhood full circle. The year 1948, when local developer Ralph Chiaro built Uplands Apartments on the site of a wooded former private estate, was a heady one for Baltimore developers. Troops were coming home from World War II, and young couples, often assisted by government loans, were starting families and beginning their bid for middle-class stability.

The idea of building neighborhoods from the ground up was emerging. A Sept. 10, 1950, article in the morning Baltimore Sun paints these developers as "creators of neighborhoods."


Beyond the mechanics of construction and financing, the creator of neighborhoods plays an important role as a builder of cities. One of his primary performances is to fit his subdivision into the outer edge of the city as one would a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It is then that he becomes a city planner, visualizing far in advance the atmosphere, feeling, and the appearance of the neighborhood he is going to build.

If the vision has changed, it's because the idealized neighborhood of the 1950s was homogeneously white. A 1956 photo from Edward Orser's book Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story shows a crowd of jacketed, skirt-wearing white Baltimoreans witnessing the ribbon-cutting at a new Hecht's at Edmondson and Swann avenues, in what was then an all-white neighborhood. Even during this ribbon-cutting, however, rapid shifts were at work that would, within a few years, transform Edmondson Village and Uplands.

Orser's 1994 book carefully documents the dynamics of the population shifts that Uplands experienced in the late '50s, as landlords and speculators lured would-be homeowners from the city's overflowing black community into all-white Edmondson Village.

"People look at [Edmondson] now, but they don't realize how fast the change occurred," Orser, a UMBC professor of American studies, says over the phone. "It was an accelerated atmosphere of fear. Landlords played on people's anxieties." Over the course of a decade, white homeowners, anxious about the arrival of one or two black families, fled to the counties, selling their houses cheap to speculators, who then sold them to African-Americans for marked-up prices. Edmondson and Edmondson Village shifted from being a neighborhood of white homeowners to a neighborhood of black homeowners. In other media outlets, Angela Bethea-Spearman, president of the Uplands Community Association and chairwoman of the Southwest Development Committee, has said that the Uplands Apartments themselves, located on the edge of more prosperous communities, began to attract lower-income renters, many of whom came from inner-city housing projects.

In 1968, the federal Fair Housing Act was passed, and government funding of Section 8 housing for the poor ushered in a new age of equal-opportunity housing. But real-estate speculators began to exploit that program as well.

In 1972, a well-connected local real-estate investor named Morton Sarubin purchased the Uplands property. In the 1970s and '80s, he owned (or partially owned) a number of HUD-funded housing projects in the area. A close associate of former Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Sarubin was also owner of downtown's Peabody Court hotel, which he bought in 1985 and sold for a considerable profit in '91.


While Uplands Apartments rarely lacked tenants, the apartments themselves deteriorated throughout the 1980s and '90s. But the deterioration of Uplands was not inevitable, nor was it a result of the federal government being stingy with funds. Much of the rent money coming into Uplands was from HUD Section 8 funds. A 2001 HUD audit of Baltimore Housing includes a scathing critique of a public-housing program that was barely functioning, and where unsupervised misappropriation of voucher funds was rampant. During the years when HUD funding was poorly supervised, property-management fees were frequently skimmed by managers who poured money into shell companies. Some of that was going on in Uplands, which was still owned at least in part by Sarubin, although the number of companies involved in various lawsuits involving the property makes it difficult to parse to what extent at what time.

In 2001, Uplands co-owner and property manager Monte Greenbaum, of Maryland Properties Management, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in skimming $1.2 million from projects that he managed throughout most of the '90s. In 2003, Humphreys Associates Inc.--the management agent for five multifamily projects owned by Sarubin--admitted in a court settlement to splitting management fees with Sarubin for personal gain. As the 2003 HUD audit report puts it, "Humphreys and the Sarubin family created a pair of shell corporations through which to funnel and conceal fee splitting payments of $750,000." Sarubin, now 84, did not respond to phone messages left at his number.

Nonetheless, by 1998, Sarubin had defaulted on Federal Housing Authority-insured mortgage payments. In 1999, HUD initiated complaints about Uplands Apartments' physical condition, and in 2001 HUD took over administration of the property. Meanwhile, Uplands Apartments had almost completely emptied out. By 2003, when Baltimore City purchased Uplands from HUD, there were only 17 families still living in the 979-unit complex. And in January 2004, they, too, left. Eventually all Uplands inhabitants between 2001 and 2004 were later involved in a class-action lawsuit. Attempts to set up meetings with former Uplands tenants were unsuccessful as of press time.

The neighborhood coalitions from the communities bordering Uplands are enthusiastic about the demolition. The New Psalmist Baptist Church, meanwhile, has little reason to complain: It plans to sell its current acreage to the city for $14 million. In exchange, the city is offering the church a $2.4 million plot of land in Seton Park off of Liberty Heights Avenue, where it plans to build a new church with a capacity of about 4,000. That's about half the size of New Psalmist's congregation, but it's more than twice the size of the building it has now.

Barbara Samuels, managing attorney for the Maryland ACLU's Fair Housing Project, has represented public-housing residents in Baltimore for more than a decade. She thinks that Uplands is part of what has become an ongoing story for the city: A large tract of lower-income housing is demolished and replaced by a mixed-income neighborhood that can only house a small portion of its original population. When asked where Uplands tenants have gone since 2003, Samuels' voice trails off. "I don't know where these people go," she says. "Some of them have gone to Cherry Hill, others . . . we can't keep in touch with them." She says that, judging from her past experience, life hasn't necessarily improved for them. "HUD relocated . . . people, giving them vouchers, even though the voucher program was dysfunctional," she says. "We know from depositions [in the lawsuit] that they were aware of that, and that there's something wrong with using a dysfunctional program. No landlords were taking vouchers, except for the most desperate ones. So those people went to some pretty bad neighborhoods."

Instead of building new neighborhoods, Samuels argues, the city needs to spend its money on the available infrastructure. Uplands Apartments, she says, were solid brick structures, even if the apartments themselves had deteriorated. While housing projects like the now-demolished Murphy Homes or Cherry Hill Homes are generally in drug-ridden neighborhoods, Uplands offered lower-income residents with Section 8 vouchers the chance to attend a decent school in a decent neighborhood. "And that's the kind of housing we should be preserving, not destroying," she says.


Whether or not Uplands should be preserved is a moot point now, especially now that the tenant suit is nearing resolution.

After the initial master plan was completed, in 2004, the city moved to the next step--searching for a developer to knock down the old buildings and build the new community. A request for qualifications also went out in 2006, as the city searched for a developer to coordinate the different aspects of the project--finance, construction, etc. Three developers applied, and in the summer of 2007, the city chose Philadelphia-based Pennrose Properties as its primary developer. Pennrose has since formed a coalition of local developers and officials under the auspicious title of Uplands Visionaries.

The visionaries also include the Uplands Partners, a coalition of local contractors and developers. These are led by Ambridge LLC, which is currently a single-person corporation headed by Anthony Ambridge, ex-city councilman and one-time city real-estate officer. They also include Doracon Contracting, which is headed by Ronald Lipscomb, an associate of Ambridge's and a longtime Sheila Dixon confidant. Other local developers include Banks Contracting and Harrison Developers. Outside Uplands Partners, another development company, Bethesda-based EYA LLC, is also participating in the project. Michael Cryor, head of the Maryland Democratic Party, and Wayne Curry, former Prince George's County executive, are also consultants for the project.

When asked about the actual nuts and bolts of the enterprise, the various Uplands Visionaries are much less effusive than the urban designers. The visionaries who bothered to return phone calls referred questions to Ivy Carter, Pennrose's manager in Baltimore.

Pennrose's local office is in Locust Point, on the first floor of an inauspicious three-story office building on Fort Avenue. Carter is an 18-year veteran of Pennrose who got her start working with the company when it revitalized west Philadelphia's Brewerytown area, a project that transformed a blighted section near the University of Pennsylvania into a haven for empty nesters and the creative class. She's friendly enough when entertaining questions about Uplands but doesn't have much specific to say. As she puts it, the work is still in process.

"You know, we'd be happy to sit down with you when plans become more final," she says. "We want your readers to know what the vision is, and what the plan is. You know, it'll provide us with positive marketing."

For the moment, though, there's no finalized master plan, and no finalized plan for financing the Uplands redevelopment. As the project's size has increased, the estimated cost has gradually grown from $200 million to $300 million, to $300-$400 million. Several legal cases still need to be resolved. The federal judge hasn't yet approved the settlement between HUD and former Uplands residents. And adjacent businesses inside the proposed footprint of the project are challenging the city's right to eminent domain. Meanwhile, the original size of the project has ballooned, more than doubling since it was first announced.


Asked for a copy of Pennrose's proposal for the project, she says that it's a work in progress. For the moment, the city has accepted Pennrose as lead developer, but that's the only thing agreed upon. As for the cost estimate, Carter admits that it's a stab in the dark, based on a provisional cost-per-building estimate. In other words, it's probably going nowhere but up.

When asked why Pennrose was chosen for the job, Carter seems more certain. Pennrose has a decade-long relationship with Baltimore City and has contributed to the city's largest affordable-housing projects. These include construction of the mixed-income housing at the Towns at Orchard Ridge off of Sinclair Lane (2008), rehabilitation in Reservoir Hill ('04), apartment rehabilitation in Druid Hill ('04), and construction of a senior-citizen complex in Cherry Hill ('03). Pennrose also has close connections with local and minority firms, also a requirement for city contracts. Basically, Carter says, "we're pretty familiar with the city and the agencies we have to work with to make it happen."

In an era when condominiums have stopped selling, she says, affordable housing may be the next big thing. And given the complexity of such ventures, it's a business that's tough for small developers to break into. Establishing dominance in the market involves a complex network of relationships in which a successful developer juggles the various issues of federal financing, local government regulations, subcontractors, and community groups. Carter rattles off the names of other states where Pennrose is active: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia.

Here in Maryland, the ties between Pennrose and the O'Malley and Dixon administrations have been tight ever since Pennrose's Brewerytown project caught the attention of some local urban planners in the '90s. Indeed, the ties seem to be tight throughout the world of affordable housing and redevelopment. Pennrose has worked closely in its home state with the Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based firm that plans and finances large-scale projects. The Reinvestment Fund was the consultant that Baltimore's Planning Commission turned to when it needed help reshaping the city's moribund master plan in 2006. While there's nothing inherently insidious about the relationships, it's clear that much of the reshaping of America's urban environment is being directed by a small group of developers and designers. Carter agrees, and she says it's for a reason.

"Affordable housing is an area that a lot of people don't know about," she says. "It's very specialized. You have to know about the products and, you know, how to get to make the deal work."

A look through campaign-finance records indicates that Pennrose, and other Uplands Visionaries, have certainly cultivated good relationships with local politicians, not least through generous political donations (see sidebar).


In his losing campaign for mayor last year, former City Councilman Keiffer Mitchell Jr. made a point of noting in his campaign literature that the developers chosen by the city for Uplands had given a total of $17,000 to Mayor Sheila Dixon's campaign coffers. (Mitchell did not respond to calls for comment for this story.) Eighth District City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who has been a strong supporter of the Uplands redevelopment since the area became part of her district after redistricting in 2002, doesn't think developers giving money to candidates is much of an issue. "I don't think that's what needs to be taken up," she says. "They gave to [O'Malley]. Some of them have given to me. It's not an uncommon thing. They probably gave some to Keiffer, too."

She is correct: According to records, Mitchell received $250 from Banks and $250 from Doracon, both in 2004.

And then there's the Baltimore City housing market, which has gone from boom to bust in the past two years and may not have hit bottom yet. Relying on market forces to push the Uplands redevelopment toward success doesn't seem as much like the risky bet it might have been four years ago. Architect David Dixon acknowledges that there are risks involved in the project, especially in a depressed housing market. Then again, he contends, risk is what makes Baltimore a better city. He mentions a few other cities--Detroit, for instance--that have been inactive in the face of population decline and goes on to speak highly of O'Malley as a mayor who took bold initiatives, tearing down old public housing and financing new neighborhoods in their place. "He was willing to get the city to invest based on future tax value," David Dixon says. Mayor Dixon, he adds, also deserves much of the credit for Uplands: "She could have fought it. She could have stayed on the sidelines. She didn't, though."

Even many of those dubious about the project, such as the Fair Housing Project's Barbara Samuels, seem to share the same hopes implicit in the Upland Visionaries vision: a city where poverty is no longer an isolating, homogenizing force.

In the case of Uplands, time will tell. In several months, if what the visionaries say is true, the wrecking cranes will be back out on Old Frederick Road in full force. And after another five to seven years, the verdicts will be in. Even in the final stages of planning, David Dixon admits it's a bit of a gamble. And, like most visionaries, he seems to believe it's worth it.