The New East Baltimore project stands at a crossroads as it enters its second decade.
After $564 million of investment, plans for a world-class biotech park have been shelved. Creation of new housing and new jobs lags far behind schedule.
Planners working on a new vision for the nation’s largest urban redevelopment project now hope that a state-of-the-art public school and more middle-class housing, a hotel, restaurants and stores will be the answer for the 88 acres north of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The stakes are enormous.
“It’s going to require all the key leaders in the city to marshal their energies around this project,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University.
“Just given its size and scale and ambitions, it’s going to require a whole lot of work to get done,” he continued. “It is doable. The commitment is there. There’s more to be done, but the bedrock is solid.”
Meanwhile, The Daily Record’s disclosure that a number of elected officials are unaware of the $1.8 billion project’s status, and its finances has prompted calls for action.
City Council member Carl Stokes, who represents part of the affected area, said he was angered by the lack of transparency in the expenditure of $212 million in public funds on the project so far. He said he will call for a public audit and hearings at City Hall on the project’s progress and finances.
“We’re moving toward a fight and showdown with EBDI because we still feel the sting of the relocation,” he said, referring to East Baltimore Development Inc.’s removal of 732 households from the Middle East community during the last 10 years.
EBDI is the nonprofit established in 2002 by the city, Johns Hopkins and community leaders to oversee the project. Stokes is a nonvoting member of the EBDI board of directors.
Stokes, who grew up in public housing at Latrobe Homes near Hopkins, said the perception that Johns Hopkins sought to push residents out of Middle East “so they can expand their campus” is still strong among current and former residents of the community.
Daniels, the university’s president, said, “We make no apologies for Johns Hopkins’ commitment to working closely with former, existing and future residents to revitalize the community, while honoring the history of East Baltimore.
“EBDI is a partnership with one and only one goal: to create a healthy mixed-use, mixed-income community with access to jobs, a state-of-the-art public school, affordable and market-rate housing, and opportunities for all its residents. Johns Hopkins doesn’t own or control any land within the EBDI district. We are only one of the partners. But we subscribe completely to that goal, and always have. We are confident that it’s a goal that this community can and will achieve.”
The role of biotech in The New East Baltimore’s future is uncertain at best.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said this week she believes the original plans for a massive biotech park are still viable, a view shared by city housing commissioner Paul T. Graziano, a nonvoting EBDI board member who sat next to her during an interview with The Daily Record.
But others associated with the project, including Douglas W. Nelson, chair of the EBDI board and retired CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, say a new reality set in following the Great Recession and changes in the biotech industry.
“People tell me that the optimism and exuberance for biotech expansion and growth [in the last] three years has been tempered significantly by the recession and the presence of the realism and potential for immediate expansion of that sector,” Nelson said.
“I thought the biotech thing was a fine idea and I had no quarrel with the enthusiasm folks brought to the biotech dimension,” he added, “but I have never thought the biotech potential was as great as the pre-existing Johns Hopkins potential already there.”
Judy Britz, executive director of the Maryland Biotechnology Center, a part of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, said the “vision has changed” for biotech in East Baltimore.
Part of the reason, she said, is that leasing costs were too high at the lone life sciences structure, the John G. Rangos Sr. Building. That was a lesson learned “the hard way,” she said.
“Hopkins had one vision as to how they wanted to outfit the facilities, while companies are focused on being lean and mean,” Britz said. “That’s the reality — they [biotech companies] are responding to a natural market demand.
“My understanding is that Rangos is relatively expensive. … I am an entrepreneur myself, I have had two startup companies, and I think everyone acknowledges that cost-consciousness is something everybody has to be aware of, including Hopkins, and I think that is part of their understanding at this point.”
Asked why plans for massive biotech development in East Baltimore have fizzled, Britz said, “I do not know the entire history, except when the picture was conceived, it had certain specifications that in the light of today’s environment need to be adjusted.
“This happened while a few miles away another biotech park [University of Maryland BioPark] with slightly competitive pricing was thriving. We also went into one of the greatest recessions, and that prevented [the East Baltimore biotech park] from getting back on track as fast as it might.”
“These are works in progress,” Britz concluded. “I think everyone would acknowledge that the [current] plan was not in the original picture. But we have the seeds of something new.”
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, says the commitment to a large-scale biotech park in East Baltimore should continue.
“I still think that EBDI and those involved in the project should continue the idea of a biotech park the way it had been planned originally,” Fry said.
Fry said he believes the recession has forced changes to the EBDI project, but he called for Hopkins to remain steadfast in its commitment.
“With all the research at Hopkins, there is potential for spin-off companies,” he said. “There has got to be a continued focus in that area.”
Room for growth
Most of the 500 life sciences companies operating in Maryland are small startups, but Britz said they attract more than $12 billion annually in federal research dollars. She added that the state has the capacity to attract larger biotech ventures that bring capital for higher-level research such as clinical trials.
That is where there is room for growth, she said.
Hopkins is moving ahead with plans to build a 4.6 million-square-foot biotech park in Montgomery County. The Montgomery County Council approved a master plan last fall that includes the Hopkins biotech park on the historic 108-acre Belward Farm site.
Britz said Hopkins is planning to build a “more classic” life sciences park in Montgomery County as opposed to East Baltimore, where the biotech park was to be part of a new urban community and the medical campus.
Andrew Frank, special assistant to the president of Johns Hopkins for economic development, said he was unaware of the Montgomery County project.
“I don’t know anything about plans for Belward,” Frank said. “I can’t speak to that.”
Fry, however, was aware of the Hopkins plans for the huge biotech park in Montgomery County and said he hopes the university’s East Baltimore plan will not suffer as a result of the second one.
“I certainly hope [for] an equal if not greater focus on East Baltimore,” Fry said. “Johns Hopkins’ home base is Baltimore, and I’d hope we would continue to see a strong attention to the city. If not, it’s very disappointing.”
If Hopkins shifts its major biotech focus to Montgomery County, “We’re missing another opportunity for Hopkins to contribute to the business base in Baltimore,” Fry said.
What will the future look like in The New East Baltimore?
Phase II demolition is expected to begin this spring as 700 more houses are razed, vacating another 57 acres, more than doubling the amount of vacant land. Plans to build a school and hundreds of new houses are years away.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said he is not troubled by the slow progress in rebuilding that part of East Baltimore.
Instead of dozens of acres of vacant lots and hundreds of scruffy row houses about to come down, he sees hope in the crane now towering over Wolfe Street, moving steel beams to build a 20-story graduate student tower. And he sees promise in the 220 homes already built.
“I see it as fields of opportunity,” Cummings said. “In other cities you’re not going to see too many cranes going up. I can’t look at it from the standpoint of a five-year plan. I look at it from the standpoint of how it’s going to look when I’m dead.”
Developer David S. Cordish, who is not involved in the project, said it has great potential to fit into the city’s future skyline. But it will take time.
“The neighborhood is still struggling,” Cordish said. “But I think people will still live there. It’s a question of giving them amenities, giving them something exciting and different.
“People said that Harbor East couldn’t work, but you had a big plate, and John Paterakis deserves remarkable credit. He had a vision and he mixed and matched.”
Looking back, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he wonders about the motive of the city and Johns Hopkins when the decision was made to eliminate the majority of the Middle East community to make way for a biotech park that has been radically downsized.
“Sometimes I wonder, was it all political, taking people out of East Baltimore,” said Young, born and raised at 1644 E. Eager St. in the EBDI footprint. “They’re voting people. That’s a whole group of people gutted out of the district. It almost makes me cry because I know a lot of stuff that was torn down didn’t really need to be torn down.”
Asked why the old community was eliminated, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said, “For many years, there have been efforts to redevelop the massive blight in East Baltimore. … Almost $13 million was spent investing in historic East Baltimore to do a house-by-house rehab of the community. And the pace of that development was insufficient to create transformation.
“It was clear that in order to transform this community, you needed to take the project to scale. It couldn’t be done bit by bit. Once that decision was made, we had to figure out how to get there. Part of that investment included public funds. That happened all over the country where you have public investments.”
‘Trust and confidence’
Hopkins may be the community’s anchor, but it has a long history of distrust from residents in the surrounding streets.
Lisa Williams, a former resident who lived at 903 N. Wolfe St. and was relocated to Belair-Edison, where she is a homeowner, wept when she talked about her old community.
“I wished it had turned out differently. It hurts to know that we had to move out because of what an institution wanted and our best interests were not at heart,” she said.
“I wanted to come back. The intent was, they were going to build housing, affordable housing, but there’s nothing to come back to purchase. What is the plan to get the residents to come back?” she asked. “It’s going to be Hopkins City. Who are they building it for?”
Raymond A. Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, was an early skeptic of the project and worked with the now-disbanded Save Middle East Action Committee on behalf of residents. He blames Hopkins for an undercurrent of suspicion in the black community, which he said began long before the first family was moved out of Middle East.
“This reminds me of that classic scene in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when Toto pulls back the curtain and you hear, ‘Don’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain.’ They are the man behind the curtain.”
Daniels, Hopkins’ president, acknowledges that the university needs “to build trust and confidence in the community” and says he is committed to do exactly that.
Hopkins, he said, “has made a significant financial commitment [totaling $22 million] in cash investment in the area, but the project goes beyond cash and reflects … a moral commitment the university has brought to East Baltimore.”
The son of a Toronto developer, Daniels said he has a keen, personal perspective of the East Baltimore development.
When asked in an interview last fall how he envisions the project developing over the next five to 10 years, Daniels said he sees a success story.
“I looked at the entire site some days ago,” he said. “The sun was shining and it was a beautiful glorious day, and in my mind’s eye, I can see the pedestrian traffic going north and south along the major arteries of Wolfe Street, I can see a grocery store, a community where Hopkins workers, patients, doctors, and students are going back and forth and I can see the kids going to a great K-through-8 school and a sparkling new building.
“It’s not hard to imagine for me.”