Auction set for blighted houses

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Three historic but blighted rowhouses are headed to the auction block tomorrow, an event that could end a long-running battle over the properties that pitted a church-related corporation against the city and an East Baltimore community group.

The houses are owned by Apostolic Community Development Corp., an arm of a prominent east-side church. Since 1999, the city has been battling to force the corporation to renovate the houses or get rid of them.

Two months ago, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge found the development corporation and Franklin C. Showell, who leads First Apostolic Institutional Faith Church, guilty of civil contempt for not abiding by a February 2003 consent decree that required the properties to be fixed up or sold.

Circuit Judge Clifton J. Gordy gave Showell and the development corporation that he controls 75 days to put the properties up for auction or face a fine of $500 a day.

The court-ordered auction of the vacant rowhouses just east of Corned Beef Row at 1404, 1406 and 1408 E. Lombard St. is set for 10 a.m. tomorrow. It will be conducted by Towson-based Harvey West Auctioneers.

A city housing attorney and a neighborhood leader, who have been battling Showell over the properties for years, said they were hopeful that the buildings would be bought by somebody who would renovate them but added that they were worried about last-minute snags in the process.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Evan Helfrich, a lawyer with the city housing department's code enforcement legal section who has been leading the court action against Showell and the development corporation.

"This defendant hasn't been following the court's orders to date. I hope that [he'll] follow them this time around," said Helfrich, who added that the auction should have been held nearly two years ago.

News of the auction is the lead item in the current issue of the quarterly community newsletter for Washington Hill, a thriving neighborhood between Upper Fells Point and the Johns Hopkins medical complex. The neighborhood is a designated local historic district considered by the city to be a "living rowhouse museum," with buildings dating from the 1790s.

"Obviously we're thrilled" about the auction, said Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill. "There's quite a buzz about it. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of getting that block fixed up."

But she added, "We're scared to death that [Showell is] going to pull something that will tie this up even longer."

Efforts to reach Showell and his attorney, James L. Rouse, were not successful.

Legal problems

The Oct. 28 civil contempt citation that led to tomorrow's auction is the latest in a string of legal and financial problems involving Showell, whose church at South Caroline and East Lombard streets claims a congregation of 3,500.

In April, Showell was sentenced to probation before judgment and put on a year's probation for willful failure to turn over to the state more than $30,000 in withholding taxes from employees of a West Baltimore funeral home that he operated. A month earlier, Showell had entered an Alford plea in the case in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, in which he acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of the criminal charge and paid the taxes to the state.

Showell also has a pending Chapter 11 personal bankruptcy case in federal court here, which he filed in 2002.

Potential buyer

One of those interested in the Lombard Street properties is Earl's Place, a nonprofit group providing transitional housing for homeless men that is next-door to the vacant properties and wants to expand. Citizens for Washington Hill supports the expansion.

"We are planning to bid on them," said Sheila Helgerson, executive director of Earl's Place. "Even if we don't get them, to have something in there would be great."

The city's battle with Showell over the Lombard Street rowhouses began in 1999, two years after they were acquired by Apostolic Community Development Corp.

In July of that year, the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, which has authority over building plans in local historic districts, agreed to let the development corporation tear down several blighted properties it owned on East Baltimore Street. But the commission ordered the development corporation to immediately stabilize two of the East Lombard Street rowhouses and another nearby church building, describing the structures as "sound and worthy of preservation."

Two and a half years later, in January 2002, the commission wrote Showell, pointing out that a stabilization plan for the properties had not been received and said the buildings were suffering from "ongoing neglect."

Sued by city

In May 2002, the city sued Showell and the development corporation over the condition of the three Lombard Street properties, which were built in the 1920s and which inspectors said had serious code violations. In October of that year, Baltimore District Judge Nancy B. Shuger ordered Showell and the development corporation to clean up the buildings and renovate them within a year, or turn them over to somebody else.

Showell appealed Shuger's order to Circuit Court. That appeal led to the February 2003 consent decree, agreed to by Showell and his attorney, which set a deadline of January 2004 for the rehabilitation, sale or auction of the Lombard Street rowhouses.

When that deadline was not met, the city petitioned the court to have the consent decree enforced. That petition led to Gordy's Oct. 28 contempt citation and order leading to tomorrow's auction.

In that order, Gordy said the Lombard Street properties "remain an ongoing nuisance to the Washington Hill community" and said settlement must occur within 120 days to the highest bidder at the auction.

Although Sweeney Smith of Citizens for Washington Hill said she was hopeful the auction would resolve the battle over the Lombard Street properties, she pointed out that the church also owns a string of blighted properties two blocks away, in the 1500 block of E. Baltimore St.

Showell's church took control of the properties several years ago but did not assume ownership of them until October because of a title dispute. Sweeney Smith said these properties also have to be redeveloped.

"We're going to be battling with him for years," she said.

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