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Essex housing complexes are targeted for cleanup


Two large Essex apartment developments that are plagued by crime and poverty will be the first targets of Baltimore County's new blight-fighting Community Conservation Program.

Problems at the Riverdale Village Apartments, where nearly half of the 1,100 units are vacant and many vandalized, and the nearby 828-unit Villages of Tall Trees were discussed yesterday at a top-level strategy meeting in Towson.

The problems at Riverdale Village -- which a top county official suggested bulldozing yesterday -- are much the same as those documented in a 1983 Sun article.

Built to house World War II aircraft factory workers, the complex also has the same owner, Richard Schlesinger of Long Island in New York, who could not be reached for comment.

The problems at those two complexes are in contrast, county housing officials said, to conditions at the 312-unit Kingsley Park Apartments, across Eastern Boulevard from Tall Trees.

It was renovated in 1988, and has been fully reformed because of management changes resulting from pressure by federal and county authorities.

Kingsley Park -- another large, old apartment complex that had ++ become rundown and rife with crime -- is now a model of what can happen when private, county and federal governments work together, county officials said.

At Kingsley Park, all tenants receive federal rent subsidies -- unlike Tall Trees, where 10 percent of residents have federal Section 8 program certificates, and Riverdale with 7 percent having rent assistance.

County officials would like to see a similar change at Tall Trees, where the ownership itself poses difficulties. There are 105 buildings in the complex, with 38 different owners -- most of them holding just one or two buildings.

The impact of the two troubled complexes on the Essex-Middle River area is devastating, county officials said. Police say Tall Trees and Riverdale together account for 46 percent of all drug arrests in the Essex Precinct, which has 65,000 residents, and officers receive more than 4,000 calls a year from Tall Trees alone.

Problems reflected in schools

School officials yesterday described how the transient nature of the tenants results in nearly complete turnover of students each year at the three nearest elementary schools.

The Southeast area's elementary school supervisor, Scott H. Gehring, said he sees "younger and younger children with greater and greater problems" despite a variety of special programs at the Deep Creek, Mars Estates and Sandalwood schools paid for by nearly $700,000 in school poverty and equity grants.

The schools have conflict resolution programs, for example, to prevent fights among 5-year olds.

Camille Wheeler, the county social services director, said after the meeting that rehabilitation of the apartment complexes will not change the poverty that forces the multiple moves of many tenants.

Attorney John B. Gontrum, an advocate for developers in the eastern part of the county, warned that nothing will substitute for the jobs economic development could bring.

Riverdale Village Apartments, off Marlyn Avenue near Eastern Boulevard, got most of the attention at yesterday's Strategic Management Group session.

County housing officials are to meet tomorrow with officials of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which holds the mortgage on half the complex. A county-organized community meeting of more than 60 area business and citizen leaders is also scheduled for tomorrow morning at the Essex library.

The goal at Riverdale Village is to find a way to rehabilitate it, several county officials said -- although County Council Chairman Vincent J. Gardina, who represents the area, said he wants the county to buy the place and bulldoze it.

"I don't think it's salvageable," he said, declaring any effort at rehabilitation "a waste of money." The county could buy the complex with local bond money and then find a new developer to build something new there, he said.

Call for drastic action

P. David Fields, director of the Community Conservation Program, and outgoing county housing director John M. Wasilisin both said yesterday that drastic action is needed soon at both complexes.

"You could start a lumberyard with all the plywood nailed up in Riverdale," Mr. Wasilisin, an Essex native, told the group.

Attendees included Essex native and former County Executive Donald P. Hutchinson; another Essex native, Mr. Gardina; county Administrative Officer Mereen E. Kelly; top school officials; various department heads; and community and business leaders.

Mr. Wasilisin said he was shocked at the physical condition of the buildings at Riverdale during a recent tour, declaring the complex as bad as any inner-city public housing project.

"Walls are ripped out, copper tubing gone, drug and alcohol stuff scattered around and there's not a whole piece of glass in the place," he said. "It was abominable, to say the least.

His livability code inspectors recorded 457 violations there in 1992, 387 in 1993 and 166 in 1994, despite the fact that one-third of the complex was closed last year. Riverdale Village, he said, has a higher percentage of code violations than any other development in the county.

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