The developer says his planned center for heroin addicts in a North Baltimore neighborhood would be revolutionary: a primary care facility that would treat all aspects of addict's lives, not just dole out methadone.
But Harwood residents see it as more of the same for a community they say is already filled with people bused in for addiction services. More addicts, they say, lead to more public urination, drug use and crime.
"When the lifeboat is full, the next person being worthy doesn't make it any less likely to sink," said Joe McNeely, president of a neighborhood coalition opposed to the center.
The issue of how and where to treat Baltimore's population of addicts is always cause for debate, but this one has reached a fever pitch. City Council members Carl Stokes and Mary Pat Clarke have introduced a bill to rezone the area, which could halt the project, at least temporarily. And developer Noah Nordheimer inflamed tempers last week by bringing about 100 protesters to picket a meeting of the Central Baltimore Partnership — paying some of them with $20 bills.
"We find that kind of conduct despicable," McNeely said. "It calls into question the character of the developer."
Nordheimer said he promised the protesters payment as a "reimbursement" for dinner or child care expenses during the time they were demonstrating. He said many would be prospective clients for his clinic. He added that 400 people have signed a petition in favor of the clinic.
McNeely agrees that Nordheimer is proposing a center that sounds good. But he said the area already has 21 drug treatment centers, including two large facilities that treat 5,000 patients a week. And neighbors are worried about the novelty of the project and Nordheimer's ability to pull it off.
"He says it's innovative and inventive, but that also means it's untested," McNeely said.
Baltimore officials estimate there are 11,000 heroin addicts in the city, and 20,000 people addicted to all illegal drugs, according to Rachel L. Indek, spokeswoman for the Behavioral Health System Baltimore.
Nordheimer's company, Concerted Care Group LLC, had hoped to begin construction next month in the 400 block of E. 25th St. of an "all under one roof" clinic for heroin addicts that would provide primary care, addiction services, mental health treatment, acupuncture, and housing and job opportunities.
Nordheimer wrote a letter to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake objecting to Stokes and Clarke's legislation. He said his team plans to invest $1.4 million in the first stage of the project and that the legislation amounts to illegal "spot zoning" against the clinic.
"Heroin and prescription drug abuse are rampant in Baltimore and it is dangerously foolish for anyone to assert that it does not exist 'in their neighborhood,' " Nordheimer wrote. "The Concerted Care Group LLC will avail itself of all legal remedies at its disposal to protect and defend its community service objectives, business interests, and the rights of Baltimore citizens."
Stokes' bill would change zoning for the area from commercial to office-residential. The councilman said the change was planned long before Nordheimer's clinic was proposed and is part of a comprehensive rezoning effort to cut down on commercial properties in the area.
"There's no doubt we have two very large methadone clinics," Stokes said. "Certainly it seems illogical to have three supercenters within blocks from one another. It does a disservice to the addicted population in the city that they cannot get treatment near their homes."
Stokes and Clarke's rezoning bill would not necessarily kill the clinic. Developers could still get a conditional-use approval from the city after holding community meetings. But both council members say they would still be opposed.
"It's oversaturation, well beyond what any community should be asked to bear," Clarke said.
A hearing on the bill has not been scheduled.
At a meeting last Wednesday of the Central Baltimore Partnership, Alan Mlinarchiksaid he and his neighbors aren't against people getting treatment for addiction.
"We are not anti-treatment," said Mlinarchik , who chairs a committee of the Charles North Community Association. "We have a concentration problem in this community. We want success for the people in treatment, and you get that success by putting them in a position to succeed."
He argued that smaller centers spread across a city could treat patients more effectively than large centers all located in one area. And the neighborhood wouldn't be able to handle the crime and cleanliness issues and risks if the clinics continue to expand, he said.
"It's not good when they outnumber the residents," he said of the clinics.
Nordheimer disputed data in Mlinarchik's presentation, mainly a statistic that more than 80 percent of the patients that come to the centers live outside the 21218 ZIP code. He argues that methadone clinics create no more problems for neighborhoods than bars do.
Debra Furr-Holden, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said with a heroin epidemic like Baltimore's, no center that wants to help people should be turned away.
"If you want to talk about saturation, what about the saturation of liquor stores?" she said.
In a statement, Rawlings-Blake indicated she's staying neutral.
"The debate around methadone clinics is very important for the future of our city," she said. "We must constantly strive to strike the right balance between making sure that treatment options are available for those suffering from addiction, while at the same time protecting the quality of life in some of our most challenged communities."