The conversion of a vacant Little Italy warehouse into apartments, some for low-income tenants, won a final go-ahead from the city yesterday -- provoking an angry response from community residents.
"Obviously, democracy doesn't mean anything in this city," Richard Ingrao, former president of the Little Italy Community Organization, shouted after the Board of Estimates voted to approve the $5.6 million project. Mr. Ingrao noted that residents unanimously had opposed the plan at a community meeting Monday night.
"The bottom line is we don't count," said Robert Marsili.
"They shoved another project down the throats of Little Italy," said Rosemary Gomez.
The 3-1 vote by the board to approve a $285,000 city loan capped months of controversy over plans to set aside 10 of the project's planned 57 units for low-income residents.
The remaining units in the old Bagby Furniture Co. warehouse on the corner of Exeter and Fleet streets will be offered at rents ranging from $640 to $1,325 per month. The building, located two blocks from the waterfront between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, has been vacant since 1990.
Last November, the board put off a decision to provide partial funding for the conversion of the 1902 building because of community protests.
Three weeks ago, the board approved the loan "in principle" but delayed a final decision until yesterday to allow developer Patrick Turner to meet with community residents.
At yesterday's meeting, the lone dissenting vote was cast by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. Public Works Director George G. Balog, Deputy City Solicitor Otho M. Thompson and Acting Comptroller Shirley A. Williams voted to approve the loan.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was in Washington for a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and did not attend the meeting.
The most dramatic moments of the meeting -- which was packed with Little Italy residents -- came when Ms. Williams said the community opposed the project because it included "income-restricted apartments."
"I have the feeling that the engine that is driving this has not been articulated," said Ms. Williams, who rarely speaks at board meetings.
Her comments brought an angry retort from Mr. Ingrao, who said Little Italy was being unfairly maligned by "innuendo."
"Our neighborhood is not prejudiced; I'm insulted that that is the argument that is going to be used," he said to loud applause.
Earlier in the meeting, Mr. Ingrao reiterated previous assertions that Mr. Turner had misled community residents when he told them two years ago that none of the units would be offered below market rates.
"The basic reason why we're opposed to this is that Mr. Turner has violated his original agreement," he said.