A large crowd was expected last night at the last of four City Council hearings on legislation that would allow the city to seize up to 3,300 properties for an East Baltimore biotech park and hundreds of units of new and renovated housing units.
The evening hearing was scheduled at Elmer A. Henderson Elementary School in the heavily blighted Middle East neighborhood just north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, where the biotech park and two-thirds of the properties to be condemned are to be located.
"This obviously is the most vital hearing," said Davon Barbour, a liaison to the project from the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods. "It's the area where the most displacement of residents will occur."
The biotech park - projected to be built in stages over the next 10 years and encompass about 2 million square feet of office and laboratory space - is a key community revitalization and economic development effort by the administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley.
The project's planners anticipate that research done at Hopkins will attract new and established biotech companies, creating what city officials say will be thousands of new jobs and will serve as the catalyst for the renewal of an area that has been on the decline for decades.
The project, which could require public investment estimated at $200 million and millions more in private funds, has been in the planning stages for more than 1 1/2 years.
Before it can proceed, the council must approve amendments to the urban renewal plans for five east side communities: Broadway East, Gay Street, Johnston Square, Oliver and Middle East.
Several council members have voiced their support for the project.
At the first of the four hearings late last month, Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, a 2nd District Democrat who represents the east side and has been presiding over the hearings, predicted that the project "will be fantastic for East Baltimore."
"I am tired of the vacant lots, tired of the boarded-up properties, tired of the unsuccessful efforts to get something done," she said.
The city's Planning Commission unanimously recommended in June that the council approve the project, with commission Chairman Peter E. Auchincloss declaring, "Frankly, I'm astonished at how good this plan is."
Reaction of community residents has been somewhat less effusive.
Many freely acknowledge the need for drastic action to reverse the decline in their communities. But others are concerned that homeowners and renters who would be displaced by the project are treated fairly.
Some have contended that the project would benefit Hopkins and its research scientists more than the community.
Rosita T. Martin, whose parents own a home in East Baltimore that is among the properties to be condemned, said to loud applause at the first hearing that the plan was "surreptitious manipulation to drive blacks out of the neighborhood."
The city has promised to pay displaced homeowners up to $70,000, plus the value of their home, and has pledged to assist renters in finding new apartments.
City officials have also said they are putting together a fund to provide loans and grants to homeowners whose properties are not needed for the biotech park to upgrade their houses.