Officials look for suitable way to bring renovations


Decades ago, the apartment duplexes along Dundalk's Yorkway corridor served as affordable steppingstones for post-war newlyweds starting a new life. Today, the buildings are showing their age and the area suffers from poverty and crime.

With the Supreme Court's recent ruling affirming governments' rights to seize private property for economic revitalization, the apartments on Yorkway might seem a candidate for condemnation. Debbie Smith, one of nearly two dozen landlords who own property there, said, "If the government uses this ruling correctly, Yorkway can finally come down."

But a proposal to do just that, Senate Bill 509, was soundly defeated a few years ago at the polls. And county officials say they won't be revisiting the idea of eminent domain here any time soon -- if ever.

"The Baltimore County voters," said County Executive James T. Smith Jr., "have trumped the Supreme Court."

"We have to use other approaches and the approaches frequently do take longer," he added. "We have to work harder to bring the results we want ... I'm optimistic we're making progress."

Guided by memories of the bruising political battle over Senate Bill 509, the current county administration still hopes to revitalize Yorkway and other older areas. But instead of eminent domain, they are looking to other methods, including a new planning process that sets aside traditional zoning and development procedures in exchange for intensive community involvement.

A divided Supreme Court ruled last month that local governments can seize homes and businesses in the pursuit of economic development.

Condemnation has long been used in Baltimore City as a way to collect properties for revitalization. Baltimore's Inner Harbor waterfront was rebuilt using eminent domain, as was Charles Center.

In Baltimore County, the law was murky on condemning property for revitalization. Senate Bill 509 was supposed to clear up things by authorizing the county to use the powers of eminent domain for the redevelopment of specific properties in the Essex, Middle River, Randallstown and Dundalk areas.

But the idea of seizing homes to turn over to developers met with stiff resistance. While the language of the bill limited the power to certain properties, county residents said they worried that it could happen to them, too.

The bill's passage was followed by a movement to put the measure on the ballot in the fall of 2000, setting up a contentious face-off between County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Perry Hall lawmaker who was invited to Essex to help lead the referendum drive.

That November, the measure was defeated by a margin of more than 2 to 1.

"We showed the county government how we felt," said Jackie Nickel, a Turkey Point resident and an early opponent of S.B. 509. "We were so proud of what we did. And if you'll notice, the east-side revitalization proceeded just fine without the condemnation provision."

Ruppersberger, now a congressman, said the legislation involved taking "very few homes" in the name of improving neighborhoods -- a message he said he was never able to adequately convey during the debate.

"It took longer to do it, but we learned ... that's what people want in Baltimore County," Ruppersberger said. "They spoke. I listened, and I did it another way."

The Yorkway area was among those named in Senate Bill 509. The county proposed buying 56 small apartment buildings, which officials described as being in serious decline, and replacing them with single-family homes built by private developers. Many neighbors supported the plan.

Yorkway is still being eyed for redevelopment.

The community was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, architect of New York's Central Park. Today, the apartment buildings along Yorkway are mostly federally subsidized, owned by 23 landlords, and described by officials as a troubled area.

A low point came in 1999, when a woman was shot execution-style over a drug dispute in an alley.

"It's gotten so bad in Yorkway that people are afraid to walk through that area, and that includes some good people who live there," said Thomas Toporovich, former secretary to the Baltimore County Council and a longtime community leader.

Debbie Smith, the Yorkway landlord, said the county could offer incentives such as tax breaks to the owners to make selling the apartments, built in 1944, more attractive.

"Some people have owned these places for 20 years or more and they would be glad to get out from under owning the properties," she said.

Larry Rosenberg, an Owings Mills developer who built WaterView in Middle River, said he wants to purchase and develop Yorkway "because there is so much potential." He said he's met with Yorkway landlords three times in recent months to discuss a possible deal.

"Yet it remains difficult to try to meet with 23 different property owners," he said. "The court's ruling might speed things up a bit."

But rather than rely on condemnation, the county designated this year the Yorkway corridor, among other sites, as "renaissance opportunity areas" that are eligible for redevelopment under the new planning process championed by Smith.

Under that process, passed by the County Council in December, the approval process can be streamlined for developers of selected projects in designated areas if they agree to work with residents and county government staff in a series of intensive planning meetings, known as a "charrette." Now, they say, momentum behind the revitalization in other areas of eastern Baltimore County has the county "ready, willing and able" to assist a developer who purchases the property.

"Baltimore County is committed to the Yorkway project," said Donald I. Mohler III, spokesman for the county executive. "We are willing to contribute funds toward the renaissance of the Dundalk core. This redevelopment will happen."

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