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Church's plan to grow would raze eyesore

Tacked on the boarded-up, two-story apartment buildings clustered on nearly 10 acres in Northeast Baltimore are identical rectangular signs.

"Private Property. No Trespassing! Thank you! Huber Memorial Church."

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For now, the postings are the only visible evidence of the interest of the large and growing congregation in the former Ramblewood Apartments on Loch Raven Boulevard, across from Good Samaritan Hospital, in one of the city's more solidly middle-class neighborhoods.

That could soon begin to change.

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Huber Memorial plans to demolish the vacant apartment complex, which the church bought last summer by outbidding four other parties, including the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, in a bankruptcy auction.

In its place, the 1,200-member United Church of Christ congregation intends to build an expanded sanctuary, along with classrooms and possibly a community center and a parking garage, according to a church newsletter and people familiar with the plan.

The church has scheduled a meeting with community leaders and residents March 3 at its present site on York Road in Govans to outline the project.

Huber's pastor, the Rev. P.M. Smith, declined to discuss details, including the timetable for demolition and construction, before the meeting, saying it would be "disrespectful" to talk to a newspaper before he addressed the community.

He said the neighborhood as well as the church would benefit from Huber Memorial's plans.

"This is an opportunity for us to grow, but also to support this community," he said in an interview last week at the church, whose congregation includes such prominent city officials as Otis Rolley III, Mayor Sheila Dixon's chief of staff, and Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who has announced that he will run for City Council president.

While demolition of the apartments would remove what had become a blight on the neighborhood long before the church bought the property, the construction of a church complex there would result in the loss of a prime locale for affordable housing - even as legislation is pending before the City Council to increase the supply of such units.

The loss of affordable rental units to redevelopment is "part and parcel of what's going on in Baltimore," said Gregory Countess, assistant director of housing and community economic development at the state Legal Aid Bureau. He said about 7,000 low-income rental units have been lost in the past decade.

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The Ramblewood site "is where you want to have housing that's affordable for low-income folks," Countess said. "This is a desirable neighborhood. It's a shame that it's being lost."

Smith declines to be drawn into the debate, saying only, "Check with [the community] about how they felt about what was at Ramblewood."

In a neighborhood that is a mix of detached homes, rowhouses and apartment buildings, some residents say a church would be preferable to another rental complex but perhaps not as desirable as new market-rate homes.

Others are simply eager to see signs of activity on the property, where many of the second-floor windows have been broken and graffiti mars the faded red bricks and the boards covering doors and ground-floor windows.

"It's disheartening," said Martia Johnson, a federal worker who has lived on Ramblewood Road across from the complex for 15 years. "This is a beautiful neighborhood. It just makes the neighborhood look bad."

The final chapter of the Ramblewood Apartments began to be written three years ago. That's when Baltimore Community Financing Corp. - a nonprofit lender set up by the city in the late 1980s to provide innovative financing for commercial and residential projects and now known as Baltimore Community Lending - foreclosed because of the failure of Ramblewood's owner to keep up with payments on a $4.1 million loan given in 2001 to renovate the aging complex.

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About the same time, the owner, OR Ramblewood LLC, an Anne Arundel County company headed by a contractor named Joseph J. O'Neill, was forced into bankruptcy by a former partner and creditor, court records show.

In a series of legal moves, a 2004 foreclosure sale was vacated and the property was placed in the hands of a court-appointed receiver. But the condition of the apartment complex continued to decline.

"Due to low occupancy, insufficient rent revenue, continuing vandalism and generally deteriorating conditions, the receiver determined that operations at the Ramblewood Apartments were no longer tenable," the bankruptcy trustee wrote in a court filing summarizing the case. "In early 2006, the receiver supervised the move-out of all tenants from the Ramblewood Apartments and shut down and secured all of the structures."

Several months later, Huber Memorial bought the property at a bankruptcy liquidation auction for $4.975 million.

The city had considered the site for demolition and redevelopment as a mixed-income community with homes for sale and rent, and the housing authority put in a bid of "around $3 million," an amount limited by federal regulations requiring that bids be no higher than a property's appraised value, said city housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.

In recent years, the city has taken title to other vacant apartment complexes, including Uplands in Southwest Baltimore and Freedom Village in Northeast. It acquired them for a nominal sum from the Department of Housing and Urban Development after owners defaulted on federally backed mortgages. But Ramblewood had no such mortgage, and the city had no such point of entry to ownership.

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"I'd like to think we gave it a really good try," Graziano said. "Financially, there was no way we could pay that money."

The second-highest bidders were Pikesville investors Richard and Steven Berman, who were attracted by the size and location of the parcel and wanted to tear the apartments down and build new apartments and single-family homes. They bid $4.95 million for the property, court records show.

"You can't outbid God," Steven Berman said.

Harris, the Huber Memorial member whose council district includes the Ramblewood site, recalls a meeting he coordinated last year with Graziano at which community leaders were adamant that any redevelopment of the site be for home ownership only.

"They were frustrated with the number of rental properties around them," Harris said.

Kenneth Washington, head of the Ramblewood Community Association, confirms the councilman's account.

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"The city kept referring to mixed housing. We didn't like that," said Washington, a letter carrier and 19-year resident.

Washington said he would have been happy with a new development of for-sale homes, but "I don't think we're hurt by the church.

"Loch Raven [Boulevard] is kind of church row," he said. "If you can't find your faith there, you can't find it anywhere."

Rolley, the Dixon chief of staff and former city planning director who is a Huber Memorial member, acknowledges that affordable housing is a city priority but says the area has a "good mix" of housing even without the Ramblewood Apartments.

"If it was city-owned property, it would have been different," he said. "It was a private transaction. There's only so much we can do."

Rolley says the church project would be a "good turn of events" for the neighborhood.

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"It's going to be more than just a church edifice," he said.

Huber's pastor said the decision to buy and build on the Ramblewood site was evidence of the church's commitment to the area.

"We could have gone to Baltimore County," Smith said. "We wanted to stay in this community."

He said the new sanctuary would be large enough to accommodate all of the church's members, and that Huber Memorial would continue its emphasis on family and children with after-school, summer school and recreation programs.

While no decisions have been made, he said, the church might retain the building it has occupied since 1995 as well as a 120-student school on Edison Highway in East Baltimore.

"What's wrong with an Edison Highway campus, a York Road campus, a Loch Raven campus?" he asked.

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eric.siegel@baltsun.com


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