The city has begun work on an ambitious redevelopment plan that could dramatically transform 87 acres of East Baltimore, with a new Johns Hopkins Hospital "bioscience park" potentially anchoring the project.
The initiative, north of the Johns Hopkins complex, could involve razing more than 20 blocks in a roughly 35-block area in one of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, the Middle East community, with an eye toward changing the landscape of East Baltimore.
In place of desolate blocks of rowhouses, planners envision a community of mixed-income housing, new businesses and open space - a more welcoming view of the city for passengers on the Amtrak rail line that runs by the neighborhood.
"We want the sort of measurable, visible change and improvement that East Baltimore wants and needs," Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday.
The idea reflects O'Malley's strategy of building on the city's strengths - in this case, Johns Hopkins - to jump-start troubled neighborhoods.
But with a price tag that could easily reach hundreds of millions of dollars, O'Malley recognizes that he will need private investors other than Johns Hopkins to step forward with major contributions if the plan is ever to get off the ground.
"We'll be looking to developers, and we'll be looking to Hopkins and anywhere else we can for all the private dollars we can find," the mayor said yesterday.
The first step, he said, is coming up with a consensus plan for the Middle East neighborhood that the city can get behind.
The notion of such a large-scale project is already drawing fire from East Baltimore community leaders and activists, who are just beginning to learn details. They expressed concerns about residents being displaced, and about the role of Hopkins, which has been viewed by some as unfriendly or unconcerned with surrounding residents.
"We really need to arrive at a common vision that can be shared by Johns Hopkins and the citizens of East Baltimore," O'Malley said. If that can't happen, he said, "I'm not going to force it down anybody's throat."
Still, O'Malley made clear that he believes that a concentrated effort to demolish and redevelop properties in one area is the best hope for revitalizing East Baltimore. He said the city's previous piecemeal approach to razing rowhouses in various neighborhoods in East Baltimore has shown "no tangible benefit" for residents.
The city has about $19 million left from a $34 million fund for east-side redevelopment, and O'Malley says he wants to use that money "to leverage a whole lot of private investment."
The Morris Goldseker and Abell foundations are funding the $130,000 cost of the initial phase of the project, which will result in a report on its feasibility and marketing potential within several months. A full strategic plan could be completed by July.
Spearheading the planning phase is Raymond L. Gindroz of Urban Design Associates, a Pittsburgh-based firm that has gained national prominence for its innovative approach to low-income housing.
Gindroz, whose firm worked on redevelopment of the Murphy Homes and Broadway Homes public housing sites, is a proponent of the design trend called "new urbanism," which brings narrower streets, rows of storefronts and small parks.
He met with city planners, Johns Hopkins officials and East Baltimore community leaders in a two-day fact-finding trip this week.
Several community leaders, who met with city officials and consultants at Hopkins late Tuesday to discuss neighborhood redevelopment, complained yesterday that they were not being kept informed of plans for East Baltimore.
Those leaders said they were not notified at all or were given varying times for their meeting and were not told of the idea for a bio-tech park.
"We were really upset that a lot of us didn't know about it and had no idea what was going on," said Glenn Ross, head of the McElderry Park Community Association. "Here's a big plan coming down and the people don't have a clue what's going on."
Constance Maddox, president of the Madison East Improvement Association, echoed that concern.
"They didn't tell us anything," she said. "We don't know what the business [of the city] is."
Maddox predicted that many east-side residents would oppose such a project.
"Do not allow Hopkins to expand further in the neighborhoods," she said. "The people are not going to stand for it."
Lucille Gorham, president of the Middle East Community Organization, said she would have reservations if the plan were to involve widespread displacement of residents.
"If it means tearing down houses, I'd have some awful feelings about that," she said. "When you have to move people around, they don't always get where they want to be. You lose a part of the neighborhood."
But Gorham's reaction was tempered, she said, because the plan appears to be in such an early stage.
"I don't really have a sense that something is going to happen," she said. "To me, it's just a plan. We can be talking about it for the next 10 years."
Gindroz said the first step is to test "market potential and a variety of uses" for the Middle East section, which is bounded by Broadway on the west, Madison Street on the south, Chester Street on the east, and the Amtrak line to the north.
He said such projects are "hard to achieve," but he said his firm has extensive experience in inner cities and has worked on similar projects in Pittsburgh and Roanoke, with bioscience parks.
"There's always a leap of faith as to whether things like this can work or not work. These are never slam-dunks," Gindroz said. "They're hard to achieve, and what you need is very strong leadership."
O'Malley has talked with Johns Hopkins about the need to help redevelop the neighborhood surrounding its medical campus since shortly after taking office more than a year ago. In recent months, his administration seized on Hopkins' idea for the bioscience park, which would try to attract a critical mass of fledgling and established biotechnology companies.
"It's something that we're very intrigued with," said Laurie Schwartz, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development. "It could become a real economic generator in East Baltimore that would provide jobs for community residents as well as help attract companies to Baltimore."
Schwartz said the planning process for redevelopment would continue with or without a bioscience park.
Still, some neighborhood activists are concerned about any plan where Hopkins is to be a major player.
"There [used to be] an extremely large amount of optimism that Hopkins was going to be at the vanguard of redevelopment," said Glenn T. Scott, campaigns coordinator for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which has worked with residents in the shadow of the hospital. "That hasn't happened. So, is there distrust now? Yes, there is distrust."