A better view for public housing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When 76-year-old Marion Howard looks out the window of her Bloomsbury Square apartment in Annapolis, she sees the side of a state garage and maintenance building, and a parking lot jammed with cars.

But soon, she'll have a new home with a much more scenic view - tree-lined College Creek, where kayaks stream past and crew teams practice - thanks to a highly unusual plan to relocate dozens of public housing residents to the city's prized waterfront.

"I think it's wonderful," Howard said of the planned public housing community, which will include brick sidewalks and units with hardwood floors and central air conditioning. "I ain't never had a new place in my life."

That community will be built on a state-owned 3-acre parcel that slopes toward the steep bank of College Creek between historic St. John's College and busy Rowe Boulevard. The waterfront real estate was a key factor in ending a 30-year stalemate between public housing residents and state officials who have long sought to build government office buildings on the Bloomsbury Square property.

Top-dollar site

The waterfront site could have brought top dollar from private developers because of its downtown location and proximity to state offices. Townhouses similar to those planned for the public housing community would sell for more than $300,000, real estate experts say.

"I think you could sell them all day long," said George Parker, associate broker with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage's Church Circle office. "You can't buy townhouses in Annapolis now, the market is so hot."

Construction will begin next month on the $7.6 million community that will replace 61-year- old Bloomsbury Square, one of the nation's oldest public housing projects. The new complex of 52 all-brick townhouses and apartments - one for every family now at Bloomsbury Square - is expected to be completed by December.

The New Bloomsbury Square has been designed to fit into Annapolis' historic district. Townhouses, some with faux wood shutters, will be offset and built with one of four different colored bricks. Each family will have a partially fenced yard and a brick storage shed.

And clotheslines - a telltale sign that the aging rowhouses do not belong among the state office buildings - will be replaced by washers and dryers in every unit.

The one- to three-bedroom homes, ranging from 770 to 1,450 square feet, will cost the state about $146,000 each to build, including landscaping and roads. There is no added cost for the land, which the state owns.

By comparison, the federal government limits development costs, including land, for its two-bedroom public housing units to $135,000 each, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development spokeswoman.

Anthony Rodgers, development manager for the New Bloomsbury Square developer, said the budget for these homes is 30 percent to 40 percent higher than the construction cost for other public housing projects his company has built in Baltimore and elsewhere.

"I think this will be the best public housing in the country," said Rodgers of A&R; Development Corp. of Baltimore.

Homes in the new community, to be built on what is now state parking lot D, will be comparable to townhouses in the Citygate development in nearby Murray Hill, on the edge of the historic district. Those 20-year- old brick townhouses, which are not on the water, are about the size of New Bloomsbury's larger units and sell for more than $200,000. Even waterfront efficiency condominiums elsewhere in town sell for close to $100,000.

Coldwell Banker's Parker says townhouses like those proposed for the New Bloomsbury Square could sell for $350,000 to $450,000 on the open market, depending on the view.

'What a spot to have'

"For low-cost housing - what a spot to have," he said. "There would be plenty of builders who would want that."

Annapolis attorney Alan J. Hyatt, who represents the developers of Acton's Landing - a proposed community of 114 single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums - agreed that townhouses like those planned for the New Bloomsbury Square would probably sell in the neighborhood of $300,000. Townhouses at Acton's Landing, the only other residential redevelopment planned for downtown, will be larger and are expected to sell from $400,000 to more than $500,000, he said.

The state will pay to relocate Bloomsbury Square residents before turning over the new public housing community to the Annapolis Housing Authority. Residents will pay the same rent they pay now, which is based on income.

"It would be hard to have a public housing community be more attractive than this one or be in a better location than this one," said Janet LaBella, chief attorney for the Anne Arundel Legal Aid Bureau, who represented Bloomsbury residents in negotiations with the state. "There won't be any comparison to the rest of the public housing in Annapolis."

Bloomsbury Square residents were able to score a waterfront site because they had something that state officials have wanted for decades - land adjacent to government offices.

"We are in the way of state expansion, so we are residing on a very valuable piece of property," said Gregory Gally, 59, who was one of the tenant representatives during design negotiations with the state.

Sought since 1968

For decades, the state has tried to take over Bloomsbury Square, an anomaly among the grand institutional buildings of the government and St. John's College. In some places, the tiny yards of deteriorating rowhouses are just a few feet from the windows and walls of the Lowe House Office Building, where delegates meet in committee and have their offices.

Since 1968, the state has officially targeted Bloomsbury Square for extinction. But residents repeatedly defeated state efforts to move them from the site, valued for its downtown location.

Resident Julia Crowner, 72, who has lived in other Annapolis public housing complexes that were rife with crime, said: "This is the cleanest, and this is the quietest. You don't hear so much about drugs or shootings - we don't have it over here."

When plans were being made last year for the $30 million expansion of the Lowe House Office Building, the Bloomsbury Square property again became the subject of talks.

This time lawmakers offered up parking lot D. The site allows the state to relocate the residents of Bloomsbury Square - the only predominantly black and low-income community in the historic district - without forcing them from the neighborhood. (That issue led a judge to block the state from taking over the Bloomsbury Square property in the early 1980s.)

Now, residents are eager to see how the New Bloomsbury Square proceeds. Alice Johnson, president of the residents' council, hopes this is the beginning of an effort to renovate all of the city's deteriorating public housing complexes.

"This should be a future example for other public housing - it should not stop here," Johnson said. "The Housing Authority should start thinking about what they can do to better the other housing projects for other residents."

After a year of planning and negotiations, Bloomsbury Square residents approved the design plan for their new community two weeks ago.

"We're glad to get new houses - stupid, we're not," Gally said. "Who wouldn't want to live near the water in Annapolis? It's a grand idea. It's going to be a beautiful, beautiful community."

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