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O'Donnell Heights units razed

The Baltimore Sun

Ella Broadway remembers being carefree, hanging her laundry to dry on the line out back. Then she knew all her neighbors in O'Donnell Heights, the sprawling public housing complex in far Southeast Baltimore, where she has lived since 1985.

"When all these houses were full, it was a really wonderful community," Broadway said yesterday, standing steps from rows of apartments set to be demolished in a major overhaul of the crime-ridden area, where two people were fatally shot in separate incidents last month.

"At one time, you knew everybody that lived in The Heights," said Broadway, a member of the tenant council, who has since moved to another apartment in the complex. "It really feels sad. But we have time to get it together. That's our past, and we're looking forward to the future."

Yesterday, workers with MACO Contractors Inc. began work on the second phase of the Baltimore Housing Authority's demolition project to tear down about 600 of the 900 units to make way for what is a yet-to-be planned, mixed-income development, officials said. In 2004 and 2005, nearly 100 units were demolished.

Mayor Sheila Dixon, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Del. Peter A. Hammen attended yesterday's event, where 100 people watched as construction workers began to knock down the buildings.

"We're really here to build a community that is ... healthy, clean and green, and safe," Dixon said.

Despite a $6.5 million grant from the city's affordable-housing fund to ready the site for new development, the road to the project's completion might be complicated by funding difficulties and a federal consent decree that dictates where and in what concentrations the city can develop public housing, Graziano said, adding, "The consent decree ought not to be a detriment to this happening."

Another issue that could impact the proposed development is a controversial inclusionary housing bill that is being considered by the City Council. It would apply only to developers receiving tax breaks or discounted land from the city and would require them to reserve 20 percent of their units for low- to moderate-income residents.

The bill would also require that a portion of the affordable units be set aside for the poorest people. After a year and a half, the bill would apply to developers who benefit from rezoning. They would have to make 10 percent of their housing affordable. The measure would expand to include projects not receiving subsidies or zoning changes only if most of the houses in the city's market become unaffordable under an equation to be determined as part of the bill.

"The Heights," as they call it in the neighborhood, was built in 1943 as a temporary shelter for wartime steel and aircraft workers. It was one of 11 complexes built in Baltimore by the federal government to house workers at Bethlehem Steel, Martin Aircraft and Edgewood Arsenal.

For more than 20 years, the development at the end of O'Donnell Street, constructed with bricks, cinderblocks and wood, remained an all-white public housing complex.

The National Guard intervened in 1967 when the complex was integrated. It remains one of the few integrated public housing complexes in the city. Dominique Wilkins, a former NBA great, grew up in O'Donnell Heights.

Despite efforts to revitalize the area, violence has persisted. Azerwoine Walker, 30, was shot to death on the afternoon of April 29 in the 6200 block of Elliott St. in an occupied area of the complex. Earlier that month, Estefany Gonzalez, 16, a student at Patterson High School, was fatally shot in a parking lot in an abandoned part of the development.

"When I first moved here, this was a nice neighborhood," said LaShawn Divers, who arrived in 1992. "They're old. There's a lot of problems inside the houses. They need a lot of work inside. The water fixtures, the rooms are too small."

Divers, 38, who came to watch the demolition with her son Malik Sadellah, 3, and a group of more than two dozen of her neighbors, lives in a cluster of 304 homes that housing officials plan to keep open.

"It looks like we're living in a desert," she said. "They keep tearing it down, but they're not building anything. Why keep tearing it down and not having anything but empty land?

"All this property and land, they need to build a playground or something for the kids," Divers said. "All this land here, you're giving the drug dealers more opportunity to hide their drugs."

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