State Sen. George W. Della Jr., who has consistently opposed new commercial development in his South Baltimore district, got an $80,000 payment last year from the sale of a piece of land there that became a parking lot for a new office project.
The former city-owned parcel jumped in value by more than 600 percent less than three years after it was bought by two businessmen, one of whom is a professional associate of the legislator.
The long, irregularly shaped strip of land in Locust Point was sold by the city as surplus Oct. 16, 2000, for $43,800 to Stephen Strohecker and Douglas E. Schafer. State records show that Della has an active real estate agent's license and is affiliated with the real estate agency run by Strohecker at 1210 Light St.
The 70,000-square-foot parcel turned out to be crucial to Foundry on Fort, a development on an adjacent parcel owned by Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. On March 19, it was sold for $300,000 to Fort Avenue Properties LLC, the firm set up by Struever for the development project.
Though he remained behind the scenes, Della said he got the $80,000 payment as reimbursement for money he spent on other development plans for the parcel. Della said he had paid for "some engineering work" on plans to build storage facilities on the land. He said the payback covered the amount he spent on the engineering studies plus what he would have earned had he invested the money elsewhere.
Della said he could not recollect the amount spent on the engineering studies.
Anthony Ambridge, the city real estate officer when the original land sale was approved, expressed amazement when told of the $300,000 sale price.
"Good lord. It was just a strip of land. You couldn't build on it," Ambridge said. Ambridge, who is now in the private development business, said that Strohecker had approached the city to buy the parcel and that city appraisers had set the value at $43,800.
"They brought it to our attention, we advertised it, appraised it and sold it," Ambridge said.
C. William Struever said that after his adjacent project got under way, some unexpected last-minute changes led to a shortage of parking spaces. The complex, a combination of office space and an athletic club, was built on the site of the former Maryland White Lead Works.
"We needed more parking," Struever said, adding that the adjoining parcel was one of three alternatives that were considered.
He said that the narrow strip of land proved to be ideal and that Strohecker and his partner, though at first reluctant, ultimately agreed to sell it for $300,000. Struever said he was not aware of any involvement of Della in the transaction.
"We never dealt with Della," he said. "We know nothing about that," he said when asked about the $80,000 payment.
And for Struever, despite the $300,000 price tag, he said the deal was a good one.
"We were able to work out a parking plan for 145 spaces," the developer said, adding that the price per space was competitive.
Struever said that after the purchase, Della was one of the local residents to speak out in opposition to plans for a wine bar at the development.
"He [Della] has been pretty consistent in opposing commercial development in the area," he said.
In fact, Della attended a community meeting that addressed general development issues held late last year, just months after his involvement in the land sale.
Speaking to a reporter at that time, Della said, "Things are going to change; can't stop that. But you don't want people saddled with problems long after some developer has pocketed the money and gone on to the next project.
"The people who grew up in Locust Point are not interested in living here today, selling their homes and moving on. That's where they want to stay; that's where they'll draw their last breath," he added.
He then recounted how he had gone on a walking tour of Locust Point a few months earlier and inventoried recent development, proposed projects, and all nonresidential properties that might one day be redeveloped, including operating businesses, churches, parking garages and vacant lots.
He said he found dozens of potential sites, a quarter of which are zoned for light industrial use.
Other major Struever projects in the area include Tide Point and the Coca-Cola plant renovation.
Della said he was originally affiliated with Strohecker's real estate agency when it was run by Strohecker's father and continued the relationship with Stephen.
"He [Stephen Strohecker] came to me and wanted to build [storage] garages on the land. I expressed an interest. I thought it was a great idea," Della said, adding that he then agreed to pay for design and engineering work. Then, said Della, the sale to Struever came along and the garage plans were abandoned.
"I didn't have an interest in the real estate. I would have had an interest if the deal went ahead. It didn't," he said.
Della attributed the jump in the land's value to rapidly rising real estate values in Locust Point.
"The value of property down here is absolutely outrageous," he said.