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Tenacious leader thinks big

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When outsiders look at Cherry Hill, they see an impoverished African-American community with a heavy concentration of run-down public housing.

But Loretta R. Johnson, who lives there, sees prime real estate overlooking the Middle Branch and downtown skyline.

"This is the next Inner Harbor. Anybody can see that," Johnson, 62, insists.

As president of the Cherry Hill Homes Tenant Council, Johnson is locked in a battle with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City over Cherry Hill's future.

Johnson's council of subsidized tenants wants to buy public housing sites totaling 26 acres as well as a 25-acre portion of a landfill. Johnson proposes to redevelop them under a $173 million package she has submitted to several city agencies and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

To underscore her determination, she has vetoed a rival plan to build new housing in Cherry Hill.

Flexing muscle

"The impact on Cherry Hill has been fairly devastating," said Enterprise Homes Inc. President Chickie Grayson.

Four years ago, Grayson's company, in partnership with A&R; Development Corp. and Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development, was one day from completing a plan to build 76 townhouses in Cherry Hill when Johnson pulled the rug from under them.

Johnson illustrates how a tenacious tenant leader can claim a catbird seat in redevelopment efforts by deftly using litigation and federal guidelines.

She is not the first local tenant council president to flex muscle. In East Baltimore, Harry Karas led a protracted fight against the Housing Authority that two years ago gave his tenant council partial control of Broadway Overlook, a new mixed-income development that is replacing public housing near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But Johnson's blueprint is much more ambitious. And she has mustered letters of interest from a variety of reputable financial institutions and builders, including Clark Realty Capital, a branch of the Bethesda- based construction behemoth.

Johnson was somewhat vague when asked how her tenant council has financed the considerable expense of hiring consultants, engineers and architects.

She said most of the money came from nearly $100,000 in development fees that the council received for participating in the planning of a recently inaugurated senior apartment complex in Cherry Hill.

Most city agencies have given Johnson's proposals at least a polite hearing. But the Housing Authority refuses to recognize her legitimacy and has tried to evict her council from its offices.

An arbitrator has ordered new tenant council elections Wednesday..

But the Housing Authority's Resident Advisory Board has scheduled elections tomorrow in what Johnson sees as an attempt to overthrow her.

The League of Women Voters was supposed to supervise elections. But Millie Tyssowski, a past president, said yesterday the league has "decided we are not going to involve ourselves any more in this controversy."

The stakes are high: If Johnson is re-elected, she may be able to exercise the right of first refusal and, under HUD rules, buy any Cherry Hill public housing sites that the city may sell.

However, if a new organization replaces hers, her ambitious acquisition idea may be dead.

The 'rice paddy'

"We are going to make a rice paddy out of this swamp," vowed N. Luqman "Wayne" Alfurqan, who is Johnson's development coordinator.

"The swamp" is Cherry Hill as it exists today, a community of 7,700 people that has lost half its population in the last 30 years and is dominated by public housing, some vacant or demolished.

The "rice paddy" is Cherry Hill as it exists in a scale model - built with Lego blocks - that shows a new mixed-income neighborhood taking advantage of views of Baltimore's harbor.

That area would have hundreds of modern units in new developments such as Fisher's Cove and GreenHouse Estates, as well as amenities ranging from a conference center to movie theaters.

There would be health spas, and drug treatment and senior care facilities. A power cell manufacturing plant would rise on the site of the Reedbird landfill to provide jobs.

With the aid of attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, Johnson has pursued her plans doggedly but so quietly that some elected city officials were not aware of them.

City Councilman Melvin Stukes, who represents Cherry Hill, was incredulous when told about Johnson's proposals.

"Lord have mercy, the world has gone mad," he said. "I just have to shake my head.

"Those kinds of things are just not going to happen."

Previous experience

Much of Johnson's power comes from previous housing litigation.

She is part of a 9-year-old class action lawsuit in which tenants accused the city and HUD of systematic segregation of public housing dating back to the late 1930s. The case was heard in December; a verdict is expected shortly.

She was also involved in a 1996 effort to end that lawsuit.

Although settlement attempts failed, the city and HUD struck a deal that gave tenants and the ACLU veto powers over any public housing redevelopment.

Four years ago, she used that power to stop the Enterprise plan. The tenant council's development team later proposed building 55 housing units - including duplexes with garages and decks - with a $10,300-a-year minimum income requirement.

The Housing Authority has refused to consider that plan; it says the project is still awarded to the Enterprise team.

But the tenant council keeps pressing for development rights, officials said.

Talks with the city

Records show that Cherry Hill Homes Tenant Council representatives have talked with city agencies about also gaining development rights to the Cherry Hill Multipurpose Center and three other public housing sites in the community.

Separately, the tenant council has had repeated contact with the Baltimore Development Corp. about building a fuel cell manufacturing plant on the site of the Reedbird landfill, according to Larisa Salamacha, BDC's economic development director.

Documents identified one of the tenant council consultants as Kwasi Holman, a one-time BDC vice president and former executive vice president of the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce. Salamacha confirmed his involvement.

To move ahead, Johnson would need to obtain development rights to one or more public housing parcels.

But Christopher Shea, a deputy director for the city Housing Authority, said his agency cannot get rid of the land or developments it owns in Cherry Hill.

Housing Authority spokesman Melvin Edwards later clarified that point. "Because of all the legal challenges, public money cannot be spent" for Cherry Hill reconstruction, he said.

ACLU attorney Barbara A. Samuels said "that statement is factually incorrect." She said the Housing Authority merely uses the litigation as an excuse for its failure to move ahead with the tenant council proposal.

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