A developer's plans to demolish a group of apartments and townhouses tucked away on several quiet Old Town streets will bring upgraded, new housing to the city.
But because those plans also include tearing down current buildings, residents of those buildings are facing an uncertain future about when and where they will find comparable housing that they can afford.
In March, Laurel Realty Co. filed a conceptual application for overlay zoning approval with the city as part of plans to demolish the 80-unit Laurel Gardens apartment and townhouse complex on Park Avenue, Ninth Street and Phillip Powers Drive, and build a new 114-unit development with off-street parking.
According to Christian Pulley, of the city's Department of Community Planning and Business Services, Laurel Realty's request is for an RO4 overlay zoning, specific to developments with existing multifamily and attached housing.
The ordinance was created, in part, to help those developers who want to replace older commercial and residential buildings with new structures that could contribute to the city's revitalization. The overlay zoning does not change current zoning ordinances, but frees developers and investors from following them if their development plan is compatible with the city's revitalization goals and is approved by the city.
"In areas of older housing stock, RO4 allows for demolition" to make improvements, Pulley said.
The application was scheduled to be discussed at the mayor and City Council's work session on Wednesday, May 2. Pulley said the first hearing will be May 14; then the application moves to the Planning Commission and has a second hearing with the mayor and City Council May 30.
The overlay zoning request is "extremely important," to the project, Pulley said.
"If it's not approved, they can't do it," she said.
Michael Collins, of Legends Builders, is partnering with Laurel Reality to build the new two-bedroom apartments, which will have a washer and dryer in each unit, central air conditioning and gas heat, and will be housed in 10 buildings that have two apartments on each of three levels.
Five of the new buildings will replace current buildings on the north side of Park Avenue, with parking areas behind the buildings. Another five buildings will be located on the island of land bordered by Park Avenue, Nichols Drive and Phillip Powers Drive, replacing garden apartments and townhouses.
The buildings will be sited along the perimeter, with parking in the middle of the island. The new development will also use some vacant land that once held a playground.
The current Laurel Gardens buildings, built in the early 1950s, will be demolished one at a time, with tenants given notice to vacate, according to Laurel Realty's Catherine DiPietro.
"We thought about rehabbing but can't," DiPietro said. "It would cost more than tearing them down and rebuilding."
Since the two-story, brick buildings have a central boiler system, renovation would have required that all the tenants leave at once and couldn't be done building by building, a plan DiPietro said they preferred.
DiPietro said some tenants are interested in applying for the new apartments, and her company is trying to help those tenants looking for temporary housing.
"This is not a decision we came to lightly; it's very emotional, very hard," DiPietro said. "If you want to still be here next year, you have to do something."
With the pending demolition plans, Laurel Gardens tenant Patricia Mobley knows she has to do something, too, but "hasn't a clue" what it is.
Mobley, 66, has lived in a townhouse unit at Ninth Street and Park Avenue for five years. After being laid off from her job with a Beltsville waterproofing company, she has been living on a fixed income while she job hunts.
"I don't like surprises: I'm on pins and needles, and I'm a wreck," Mobley said, adding that she has started to look for another affordable place to live.
"Everybody in this complex is really a wreck," she said.
DiPietro said some Laurel Garden tenants currently pay as little as $585 monthly rent, with newer tenants paying about $850 for one-bedroom apartments.
Apartments at the Dona, a complex of three-level brick buildings on Fourth Street that were built in the early 1960s, are listed as renting for $940 for efficiencies and $1,010 for one bedroom.
By comparison, one-bedroom, one-bath apartments in Main Street's Patuxent Place rent for around $1,200 to $1,400, according to Karl Albert of Bernstein Management. Albert said those rents are comparable with other newer apartments in Laurel.
Rent for the new planned two-bedroom apartments will start at $1,100, with renters paying their own utilities, DiPietro said.
Andrew Jackson lives with his girlfriend in a three-level townhouse that rents for $900, which does not include utilities. He said he has distributed information to other Laurel Gardens tenants questioning the city's procedure and timing in moving the development plans forward, and that a petition has been circulating among the residents that requests that Laurel Realty gives them "ample time to find new homes."
"I'd like to see the entire project held up for one year to give people time to get their thoughts in order," Jackson said.
'A business decision'
DiPietro, who now runs Laurel Realty with her brother, Michael Anderson, said tearing down the buildings was a business decision and something that the company is doing reluctantly. She said when her mother, the late Peggy Anderson, held the reins of the family business, she refused to raise the rent on the one-bedroom apartments, and would pick and choose when she did raise rent on other units — keeping the rent low for tenants on Social Security or those who had fallen on hard times.
"If something became vacant, she would raise the rent for someone new coming in," DiPietro said.
In 2011, the rent was raised by $20 a month, but that was not enough to cover the cost of maintaining the apartments and townhouses, she said.
"We lose money every month; rent (for the apartments) includes utilities, and it's killing us," DiPietro said. "My mother thought about it five years ago, then passed away" in 2010, while the project was still being planned.
"Utilities and oil have quadrupled," DiPietro said. "My mother went to her deathbed worrying about it."