EBDI's momentum

EBDI has a long way to go, but it clearly has momentum.

The question of whether Sagamore Development's recently announced community benefits agreement for its massive Port Covington project would help bring an end to the "two Baltimores" phenomenon sucked up most of the attention this weekend. But meanwhile, far from the waterfront, another attempt at creating an economically inclusive community got a sudden jump-start when one-day-only incentives prompted the sale of more than 50 homes in a matter of hours in what was once one of Baltimore's most segregated neighborhoods.

East Baltimore Development Inc., known as EBDI, was long considered something of a failure in its promise to transform an 88-acre swath of land north of Johns Hopkins Hospital into a new employment hub and mixed-income community. It started with grand ambitions and the backing of some of Baltimore's most powerful institutions — Hopkins, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others — on the promise that the spillover from the nation's premier research hospital could replace decay with opportunity. But the project ran headlong into the financial crisis, and for years its legacy seemed to be one of community anguish over the relocation of existing residents without the payoff.

But now things are finally starting to move in the area, formerly known as Middle East and now called Eager Park.

The Henderson-Hopkins school — a public K-8 school plus early childhood learning center operated by Hopkins and Morgan State University — is an architectural crown jewel of the neighborhood. Its classrooms (limited to just 20 students) mix those who live in the EBDI footprint with children of Hopkins employees and those who live in surrounding areas. A new hotel, designed to serve the families of Hopkins patients, broke ground in December. Tenants are about to move into new lab and office space, a park is due to open by the end of the year, and hundreds of new, market-rate rental units are in the pipeline. The area has a Walgreens, a 7-Eleven, a branch of Harbor Bank and an Atwater's restaurant. Two new restaurants from the Karzai group (including a fast-casual Afghan concept) are due to open soon.

The home-buying frenzy Saturday was unusual for any new housing development, much less one in East Baltimore. Hopkins offered up $36,000 Live Near Your Work grants ($19,000 more than the program typically provides) for a bloc of mostly new but also some renovated townhomes in the area. Those who showed up between 8:30 and 9 a.m. on Saturday and were able to provide proof of Hopkins employment, homeownership counseling and financing pre-qualification, plus $1,000 in earnest money, were entered into a lottery for the chance to buy one of the homes. Hopkins' effort to create "instant community," as one official put it, paid off, with the equivalent of two years' worth of sales activity in a matter of hours.

EBDI has been controversial from the start, with some looking on it as a forced gentrification project straight from the bad-old-days of urban renewal. It involved the relocation of hundreds of families — some within the area but many to other communities. And demands that more of the jobs created by the initiative go to the area's existing residents have persisted. Some of the early redevelopment projects in particular were focused on affordable housing, and EBDI used a "house for a house" model to move families to newly rehabilitated homes within the project's footprint. More recent market-rate construction — including the homes sold this weekend, which ranged in price from about $235,000 to $300,000 — is drawing people from around the region, but if the dream of an economically inclusive neighborhood has faltered to some degree, it's from the lack of incomes on the high end, not the low one.

The original idea was for a third of housing units on site to be affordable, a third to be workforce housing and a third to be market rate, but the EBDI board eventually wound up merging the last two categories in recognition of market forces that, at present, don't support high-end housing in East Baltimore. According to pre-registration information Hopkins collected before Saturday's event, most prospective homebuyers earned between $50,000 and $70,000 a year. (And most, for what it's worth, were African-American.) The school hasn't proved as socio-economically integrated as planners hoped either; more than 90 percent of students there have historically qualified for free or reduced-price meals, though the number has dipped recently.

But Saturday's event shows that many wrote EBDI off as a failure too soon. One of the homebuyers who spoke with The Sun's Natalie Sherman on Saturday said he was eager to buy into what he saw as an "up-and-coming community." Nobody was calling it that before EBDI. Within the next few months, 51 new homeowners will move into the neighborhood, and their presence will only encourage others to follow. EBDI still has a long way to go to live up to its ambitious promise, but it clearly has momentum.

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