BEHIND THE GOLD Southeast Linkage Group wants a say in development, urges channeling of money to moderate-cost housing


When the luxury condos went up and boat slips went in along the "Gold Coast" in Canton and Fells Point, the old neighborhoods felt the pinch. The long-time residents saw their waterfront views shrink and their tax assessments rise.

Southeast Baltimore community leaders now want to have more say in future development and have asked the city to approve a plan that would allow area residents to closely monitor new construction plans from Little Italy to Canton.

The plan is backed by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and the six council members who represent the 1st and 2nd districts, the areas that are affected by the new development.

City approval is necessary to allow city planners to work closely with community groups that want to monitor new development.

The coalition also wants the city to channel property tax revenue and repayments of federal Urban Development Action Grants into a housing trust fund that would finance affordable housing in southeast Baltimore communities.

Community leaders also want developers to make voluntary contributions to the trust fund.

City Planning Director Ernest Freeman said the Schmoke administration is not opposed to allowing city planners to work with the coalition.

Asked about the trust fund proposal, Mr. Freeman said: "That's a policy question the mayor is not prepared to agree with at this point."

The coalition, called the Southeast Linkage Group, was formed three years ago in reaction to the encroachment from the so-called "Gold Coast" development. The development began a decade ago, dotting the harbor with high-rise condominiums, townhouses and converted industrial buildings.

The plan calls for the formation of a Southeast Planning Council, to be made up of community representatives. It would review developers' proposals and make recommendations to city planners.

The council would work with city planners long before construction begins and work to prevent low- to moderate-income residents from being pushed out of the neighborhoods.

The Southeast Planning Council is only part of a larger community plan that will set a strategy for social, educational and environmental issues for much of southeast Baltimore.

While the Schmoke administration has voiced partial support for plan, council members in the 1st District enthusiastically back the entire plan, including the trust fund.

Last fall, two new councilmen were elected in the 1st District, John Cain and Perry Sfikas, both of whom are staunch advocates of the Southeast Linkage Group's proposals. They joined incumbent Nick D'Adamo, also a supporter.

Mr. Cain and Mr. Sfikas replaced longtime councilmen John A. Schaefer and Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro, who routinely supported developers, much to the chagrin of the community.

The previous councilmen "were very sympathetic to the developers," said Mr. Sfikas.

"John [Cain] and I have a very balanced approach. We desperately need development and we have to encourage it.

"But the community wants something in return," he said of the linkage group's proposal to ask developers to donate park land or money, in exchange for the community's blessing for their construction plans.

"The neighborhood stuck it out in the '60s," said Mr. Sfikas, referring to the residents who resisted the flight to the suburbs.

"But suddenly the renaissance begins and attention is given to the big boys and girls with their flash projects," he said of the developers.

The idea for the planning council and the trust fund stemmed from a Southeast Linkage Task Force last year, coordinated by Ms. Clarke.

Most of the new development is in the 1st Council District, but the plan also includes a portion of the 2nd District. The plan covers an area extending from Fallsway east to the city line and from the waterfront north to Monument Street.

Robert Agus, a developer who was on Ms. Clarke's task force, said he agrees that the process of involving the communities in construction plans should be better organized, but disagreed with community leaders who say developers should return something to the community.

"The projects that I'm familiar with don't have a negative impact on the community financially, and in any case the problems they're concerned with are affordability. That needs to be addressed by communities and the city at large," he said, adding that developers should not be expected to donate money to a community in exchange for being allowed to build there.

But community leaders see the situation differently.

Sister Bobby English, director of Julie Community Center in East Baltimore and one of the organizers of the linkage group, said, "We realized there is a strong possibility that those people who have built the neighborhood and contributed to its vitality would be threatened by the very things that are being done to improve the neighborhood."

Mr. Freeman said the administration has "some concern about Baltimore's competitiveness in the region," that developers will perceive the city as anti-development and build their projects elsewhere.

Robert P. Giloth, executive director of the Southeast Community Organization, who is helping to coordinate the group's proposals, said he was disappointed by the city's partial support for the plan.

"It's not much of a commitment to say you support planning when the issues we raised really had to do with the equities of development -- what the community gets in return -- but it's still a first step," he said.

Ms. Clarke likes the idea of the low- and moderate-income housing trust fund.

"Affordable housing is a major need in southeast, especially as the population ages," she said. Ms. Clarke emphasized, however, that any contributions made by developers to the community would be voluntary, not "mandated."

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