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Baltimore City

‘It’s a heavy lift’: How Baltimore will transform 244 acres of former public housing projects

It’s a bold Baltimore urban project — some 244 acres in East and Southeast Baltimore are being demolished and rebuilt throughout Oldtown and the former Somerset and Perkins homes public housing projects.

“It’s a heavy lift,” said Chris Ryer, the Baltimore City planning director. “We have the city, state and federal government all aligned, but if there were more money involved, it would be easier.”

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To put it a different way, the 1904 Baltimore Fire consumed 140 acres. This is a landscape 100 acres larger.

It’s a challenge transforming neighborhoods from McElderry Street on the north to Bank Street on the south. The planners, developers and builders are working on a blank canvas as blocks of 1940s housing projects fall to bulldozers.

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Their place will be taken by neighborhoods composed of new low-rise apartment units tightly placed along the city’s existing street grid system.

“The Perkins-Somerset-Oldtown Transformation Plan ... will revitalize a ... footprint in East Baltimore that has been historically underserved and has experienced years of disinvestment,” wrote Janet Abraham, president of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, the entity that controls these building parcels, in a descriptive document.

Demolition work continues this fall.

A small portion, at the northern edge near McElderry Street is complete, but there are large sections of city neighborhoods awaiting this substantial transformation.

One of the key areas is the former Perkins Homes site, a 1940s public housing project that had pretty much come to the end of its productive life.

“It’s huge and it’s a moving target,” Ryer said. “This thing has so many parts.”

He enumerated 1,500 new market-rate housing units and another 500 “deeply affordable” units. Then he said that the restoration of the Chick Webb Recreation Center is also on the menu, as well as two new town squares, a restored park and all the unseen infrastructure that accompanies a total rebuild.

“That’s a lot,” Ryer said.

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New construction is underway on the former site of Perkins Homes, a 1940s set of temporary homes in East Baltimore for WWII war workers that became public housing units.

Dan Henson, who once served as Baltimore’s director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, is one of the several developers working on the effort.

He spoke of the Old Town Mall, a section of Gay Street south of Monument Street, that was once a thriving shopping destination.

“I put the Old Town Mall out of business,” said Henson, referring to how, as housing commissioner, he ordered several high-rise housing projects demolished in this area.

When the projects were erased, the people who once patronized Old Town Mall’s shops disappeared.

“I remember a high school teacher telling us that Baltimore had a population of 960,000 persons,” Henson said. “That’s not the case today. We’re around 600 and some thousand.”

The East Baltimore transformation plan addresses Baltimore’s changing population.

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It’s also about replacing the public housing projects built more than 75 years ago.

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“In some cases, at Somerset Homes, the foundations shifted and shattered the water lines,” Henson said.

The planned development will do away with blocks of low-rise, rectangular shaped housing pods created by architects and planners to replace some of the city’s most degraded slums before and after World War II, when decent housing in Baltimore was at a premium.

No one thought this housing was more than temporary — and maybe would have a life of 40 years. Construction was hampered by 1940s wartime shortages. Projects such as Perkins, Poe, McCulloh, Latrobe, Gilmor, Flag House, Lexington, O’Donnell Heights, Douglass and Armistead Gardens filled parts of Baltimore.

When new, these projects were racially segregated. Perkins Homes was constructed for white World War II defense workers and located near the harbor so they could board ferries and and work in the Fairfield shipyards.

The Supreme Court later struck down housing segregation and Perkins Homes became integrated.

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“This new mixed-income, mixed-use community will provide a range of housing choices and opportunities for legacy Perkins residents,” said Vince Bennett, president of the McCormack Baron firm creating a new Perkins neighborhood.

“With a housing mix that includes public, workforce and market-rate rental opportunities, current and new residents will experience an economically integrated community of high-quality housing and excellent amenities woven into the community.”


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