A long-awaited day for Uplands, but more hurdles ahead

Community leaders, developers and politicians celebrated the groundbreaking for a long-awaited development project in Southwest Baltimore yesterday — and praised former Mayor Sheila Dixon, who made her most prominent public appearance since resigning from office this year amid a corruption scandal.

More than 1,100 condominiums, apartments, townhouses and "mansionettes" are to be built on a 100-acre tract that includes the former site of the Uplands publicly subsidized apartments. Developers' plans include tree-shaded boulevards, playgrounds, and market-rate and subsidized housing.

The first phase of the project, with nearly 800 homes and apartments, is to be completed by spring 2012. But key city approvals are pending, and the ceremony did not mark the start of construction.

Uplands is about a mile from the Baltimore County border and is surrounded by several stately neighborhoods, including Hunting Ridge, where Dixon lives.

Dixon, who resigned from office in February as part of a plea deal in her criminal trial, appeared to be among supporters at the ceremony. Community leaders embraced her and handed her a bouquet of roses. She sat front and center, not far from her predecessor and successor in City Hall — Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

In an opening prayer, the Rev. Beatrice Hawkings of Predestined for Greatness Ministries, briefly mentioned the other dignitaries, then turned to Dixon. "We love you and thank you and will always remember how you contributed to this project," she said, to a smattering of applause and "amens" from the crowd.

As he took the podium, O'Malley greeted other officials and said, "Oh, Sheila, there you are. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, good to see you as well."

In brief remarks, Rawlings-Blake lauded the "strength and spirit of our community" and said she was "proud of what I know Baltimore will become because of this Uplands project."

She did not acknowledge Dixon, who was typing on her BlackBerry during Rawlings-Blake's remarks.

Speakers expressed relief that work was finally about to begin on the project. Though officials said they expect construction to begin in the spring, a number of hurdles remain.

A master development agreement — through which the city assigns rights to developers —has not yet been approved, a spokeswoman for the city housing department confirmed. A contract to grade the 100-acre property and install water and sewer lines and other infrastructure has also not yet been approved.

The $238 million project, which has been in the making for more than a dozen years, was delayed by a nearly five-year legal challenge from former tenants. More than 200 former residents have been promised housing in the completed project as a result of a settlement.

The project came under scrutiny during Dixon's administration because her former boyfriend Ronald Lipscomb was a member of the development team. Lipscomb, whose lavish gifts to Dixon were seized as part of a corruption investigation, later dropped out of the project. Dixon was found guilty of spending gift cards intended for needy families on herself, and left office after a plea agreement.

The former mayor was criticized last year when a $4 million demolition contract for the apartments was awarded to P&J Contracting, Co., a company with close ties to Dixon, although the company failed to meet city women- and minority-owned business guidelines.

Dixon did not address the crowd, but, in an interview after the ceremony, said, "This project would not be here today if my administration and [former Deputy Mayor Andrew B.] Frank and myself did not put so much time in it."

She chastised city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano for not mentioning her in his remarks. "Paul should have acknowledged that," she said.

Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for Graziano, said it was an "oversight and by no means meant to be a disrespect to the former mayor and all she's done for the city."

Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who represents the Uplands area, sat a few seats away from Dixon during the ceremony. Holton, who is accused of a campaign finance violation that was a result of the same investigation that ensnared Dixon, is scheduled to appear in court Monday.

"It has not yet appeared all that Uplands will be," Holton said. "So keep your eyes open and watch."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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