Uplands project picks up steam

The Baltimore Sun

A vast housing development long planned for Southwest Baltimore and called the city's most significant project in 50 years will pass a milestone today as officials announce that a Philadelphia-based firm will lead the $200 million effort to reshape the Uplands community.

Officials told The Sun yesterday that Mayor Sheila Dixon will reveal Pennrose Properties -- joined by a team of some of the city's most prolific builders -- as Baltimore's choice to turn nearly 100 acres near the Baltimore County line into 1,100 new apartments, houses and condominiums.

City leaders say the project, in the works for nearly five years, will transform the sleepy western edge of the Edmondson Avenue corridor and provide a chance to bolster the city's tax base by attracting, among others, military families heading to Maryland as part of the federal base realignment.

"I think it will be perhaps the most historic new neighborhood built in this city in the last 50 years," Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said yesterday.

"It's a huge, huge opportunity to the city to provide a housing product that homebuyers are looking for. This is a product that will compete in every way with the strongest markets and communities throughout the metropolitan area."

The Pennrose team includes the Bethesda-based homebuilder EYA and Uplands Partners -- a coalition of Ambridge LLC led by Baltimore's Anthony Ambridge, Banks Contracting Company, Doracon Development headed by Ronald H. Lipscomb, Harrison Development, the Cryor Group and former Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry.

Part of what gave the Pennrose team the edge over the other two competing teams was its strong minority equity component, Graziano said.

Uplands Partners will have a 32 percent interest in the project, and minority partners Cryor Group will have 1.5 percent. Curry will also have 1.5 percent.

"This is significant participation and with credible, experienced developers," Graziano said. "These are not folks who are just getting into the business."

Other teams vying for the job included the St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar and Uplands Revitalization LLC, a group made up of Bank of America Community Development Corp., Bozzuto Group, Blair McDaniels LLC and Phoenix Development Partners.

5 to 7 years

Pennrose development officer Patrick Wagner said he hopes to begin construction late next year. He anticipates it will be a five- to seven-year project -- the company's biggest.

"It's huge for our company," he said. "This is the most important opportunity we've had in the Baltimore market. ... It's a large enough piece of land to provide you the opportunity to really do some things that are different and really have an impact."

The master plan -- which Wagner said the firm expects to stick to -- calls for 1,100 new housing units, about 800 of which will be for-sale affordable and market-rate homes. The rest will be rentals. An assortment of house styles will include small-lot singles, rowhouses and duplexes, grand four-plex "mansionettes," and rental and for-sale multifamily buildings of higher density along Edmondson Avenue.

Pennrose is involved with two other significant Baltimore projects. The company is leading the redevelopment of the former Freedom Village/Claremont Homes site into 467 affordable and market-rate homes and apartments. It is also a subdeveloper for a residential portion of the East Baltimore biotechnology park.

Dixon, who is scheduled to announce the development team this morning, said in a statement yesterday that the Uplands project will have a reverberating impact throughout Baltimore.

"This development will turn the Uplands neighborhood around," she said. "I am also excited because of what this development project means for Baltimore City. It is another example of how we continue to attract major developers to build communities that will help move Baltimore forward for years to come."

Sources of delay

Two unresolved lawsuits are part of what has delayed the Uplands project. In a class action suit filed in 2003 against the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, former tenants of the Uplands Apartments want a guarantee that some of the new housing units will be inexpensive enough to give them a chance to return.

The city and the Legal Aid Bureau have been trying to negotiate a settlement for about two years, and Graziano and a Legal Aid attorney said yesterday that the parties are close to an agreement.

"I think things will be concluded shortly," said Legal Aid attorney Gregory Countess.

Additionally, seven property owners with shops on a 3-acre parcel known as "the Triangle," bordered by Old Frederick Road and Edmondson and Swann avenues, are fighting the city's condemnation of their businesses. A trial date is set for September.

The business owners contend that the city cannot seize their properties because they are neither blighted nor needed to curb the spread of blight -- one of which must be the case for the city to seize the property.

Now that the city has chosen a development team, it will negotiate a sale price for the land. Meanwhile, Graziano said the city has started to clear some environmental hazards from the site and hopes to soon resume the demolition of the Uplands Apartments and buy more of the properties it needs in the Triangle.

"We lost some time over the last two to three years, but moving forward we can move a number of these tasks down the field at the same time," the commissioner said.

Church displaced

By 2010 the city expects to take over the site of New Psalmist Baptist Church. The city is paying the church $14.2 million to move its 7,000-member congregation to a city-owned parcel in the Seton Business Park in Northwest Baltimore.

The city plans to approve tax increment financing bonds, or a TIF, to help finance the project. With a TIF, a developer can use expected additional property tax revenues from a project to pay off the debt.

Some who live nearby applauded the choice of developer and are eager to get the project going.

"I've been waiting a long time on this process -- it's been going on forever, it seems," said Bill Eberhart, president of Historic Franklintown.

"I think this is going to be one of the best things that's happened in West Baltimore in years. I think it will help the whole west side."


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