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C. Fraser Smith: Sunshine and leadership needed for EBDI project

In the early 1980s, when I was a new reporter for The Baltimore Sun, I tried to get some information from the Peale Museum. I couldn’t have it, I was told. The museum was a quasi-public institution under no obligation to make its business open to the public.

This was red meat for an enterprising reporter.

One thing led to another and I ended up writing a long series of articles about what the newspaper and I called The Shadow Government.

City Hall was running a $100 million banking operation largely unknown to the citizens of Baltimore and, to some considerable extent, unknown to elected public officials.

I’m reminded of that series by reports recently in The Daily Record after a five-month examination of The New East Baltimore project, a massive renewal enterprise in a part of the city sometimes called Middle East, sometimes the “Badlands.”

The series — by reporters Melody Simmons and Joan Jacobson — suggests that millions of public and private dollars have been spent with little or no accountability. The mayor and City Council members say they’ve had no working knowledge of what’s been done there.

From the ground up

The project’s mission has been a fluid thing, changing along with economic conditions. Its manager, East Baltimore Development Inc., asserted one focus — a sexy, jobs-producing biotech center at first — then drifted toward housing and education when the first theory fell victim to various forces,

EBDI must surely get highest marks for ambition. Taking the public-private planners at their word, EBDI was trying to reclaim a part of the city from all manner of urban decay and misery.

It has tried to do this literally from the ground up, proposing what it called a new form of urban redevelopment. Notwithstanding the appearance of old-style urban renewal — knocking everything down, creating an urban prairie and hoping to start over — the plan was to strike a partnership with one of the city’s most important institutions, the Johns Hopkins University Hospital.

To give it all striking legitimacy, the redoubtable Annie E. Casey Foundation became a partner. Surely the old patterns would not be tolerated by an organization famous for supporting children and families.

EBDI would create a new neighborhood with a state-of-the-art school — for any remaining families — and new, affordable housing for residents who wished to relocate, remain or return.

The anchor, though, was to be jobs — high-caliber, well-paying jobs in a biotech park.

An illusory plan

From the beginning, I will admit, this plan seemed illusory. If the idea was to reclaim the neighborhood’s human as well as physical infrastructure, was it possible that biotech jobs could be filled from the then-existing population? At the very least, it seemed vulnerable to a kind of mission-erosion.

I thought the real plan was to help the ever-expanding Hopkins widen its footprint yet again under the guise of community development.

Save for the lack of real transparency, this idea was not without merit. Aspects of the Badlands were always going to be bad without some radical intervention, a plan that might well be disruptive. If it were possible to superimpose a healthier neighborhood template — with jobs and good schools and healthy housing — why not ride the powerful Hopkins pony?

Even Hopkins was not immune to the recession, yet the disappearance of the biotech focus is a bit dizzying. How could the project proceed without the jobs?

New leadership at the university makes a renewed declaration of support for the community at least.

“To build trust and confidence in the community is the role of Hopkins and represents a real opportunity to unleash the intellectual and moral energy that courses through the veins of Hopkins and the people in the area,” Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels told The Daily Record.

Projects of this magnitude take time and leadership and vision, of course. Too bad Daniels wasn’t here from the start. The project was touted as the nation’s biggest, but it never had political or institutional or business-sector leadership on the same scale.

Now it needs every bit of the intellectual and moral energy alluded to by President Daniels — and it needs to be pursued out of the shadows.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.