EBDI’s slow pace makes for a ‘war zone’

Daily Record Business Writer//June 20, 2011

EBDI’s slow pace makes for a ‘war zone’

By Melody Simmons

//Daily Record Business Writer

//June 20, 2011

Father Peter Lyons of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church

As he looks out the front door of the rectory at St. Wenceslaus Church in East Baltimore, the Rev. Peter Lyons says he often sees something that resembles an urban war zone.

Blocks of vacant and boarded-up houses, once home to a vibrant community, have sat unattended for at least two years, he said, as work on a portion of the 88-acre, $1.8 billion redevelopment of the community known as Middle East has stalled.

“Six vacant homes went up in flames,” he said of six separate fires in one weekend this month at the hands of vandals in the dwellings purchased by East Baltimore Development Inc. over the last five years, their owners and renters relocated.

“I’m concerned it’s a public safety hazard. It invites criminal activity,” Lyons said of the 700 vacated households, which have left blocks and blocks of city landscape that resemble a ghost town.

“There has been an increase in violent crime and drug activity.”

The problems are mounting, Lyons said, because construction of Phase II of the EBDI project has yet to start – despite numerous promises, spoken and in written reports, by officials of the nonprofit, including CEO Christopher Shea.

A request for proposals to clear a seven-acre site for a new school was due Dec. 20, 2010, the EBDI website shows.

But Shea, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in a June 8 email that Phase II work would begin “this summer, start date not set. Contract still in negotiation.”

Lyons said he has heard it all before.

“He’s [Shea] told me ‘next season’ we will begin work – and he’s told me that for eight seasons. … It’s been two or three years now,” Lyons said, adding that he has not heard from Shea in months.

“We wait and wait and nothing happens. Vacant lots are better – it’s a lose-lose situation. It has created a huge crater in the middle of a living neighborhood.”

Plans for a world-class biotech park near Johns Hopkins Hospital, a partner of EBDI along with the city and state and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, have been shelved. Officials blame the Great Recession.

Other reasons, such as disengaged elected officials and a failure to attract biotech firms to commit to the project are also to blame, a five-month investigation by The Daily Record found earlier this year.

So far, about $564 million has been committed to the project — $212.6 million of that in public funds since 2001.

With biotech development plans on hold, the redevelopment plan for the area is being reconfigured by private consultants and developers to include a different mix of housing and more commercial development, including a 20-story, $60 million Hopkins graduate student tower, a 10-story, $30 million parking garage, a 150-room hotel and restaurants.

Construction of the $40 million community school – a public school built with private funds – would attract residential developers and, eventually, new homeowners to the site, Shea said last fall.

In the meantime, Lyons says, what’s left of the community struggles with the blight and vacancies.

Phase II plans call for 1,300 new homes, the school and a family resource center. EBDI’s 2009 Annual Report said “We are preparing a seven-acre site for our permanent school building” that was supposed to begin in the summer of 2010, the report said.

That site demolition was rescheduled to late last fall, other EBDI reports showed, and then into this year, according to a December 2010 request for proposals for the school site listed on the EBDI website.

Such inconsistencies have left community members including Lyons perplexed and frustrated.

“Even if they don’t have the money [to build] the school, let them demolish them and clear it and fence it off,” he said, of the vacant houses. “To leave them standing is an affront to the community.”

Shea said in the June 8 email that only seven of the 57 acres in Phase II will be demolished initially, an area bounded by Ashland and Patterson Park avenues, and Chester and Eager streets.

The total cost and the contractor are “still in negotiation,” Shea wrote, and the demolition of the seven acres will take “nine months from start date.”

The EBDI website details other requests for proposals for the Phase II work, which includes a utility infrastructure engineering study for the seven acres for the community school.

The website also details plans to build an urban “Gateway Park” at Broadway and Chase Street, in Phase I, which covered 31 acres, and seeks a landscape architect to draw plans.

Also requested are sub-developers to purchase and rehab scattered site housing in the Phase I footprint in the 1700 block of East Chase Street, the 1100 block of McDonogh Street and the 1100 block of Rutland Avenue.

In all, original EBDI development plans called for 2,200 new homes on sites where 732 households once stood on the 88 acres.

The stymied project is taking its toll, said Lyons, who has been at St. Wenceslaus for 12 years. Located in the 2100 block of Ashland Ave., the stately granite Catholic church with a pair of towers has long been an anchor of the East Baltimore community. It hosted an overflow crowd in 1992 for a visit by Mother Teresa.

Lyons said he has told Shea “Don’t dare start demolition without notifying anybody,” because fears of dust, dirt and rodents from the pending demolition persist.

He said “They have to save face” by building the school after making promises to the community and opening a temporary school in trailers at the former Elmer A. Henderson Elementary school site.

“I think it is going to happen, it’s just going to be agonizingly slow,” Lyons said. “Too much prestige is on the line, too much credibility.”

“It does have a depressing effect on the spirit. It’s demoralizing to live in the midst of all that decay,” he added. “My brother visited me from Boston and we walked outside and he said, ‘My God, nobody told us we were in a war zone.’”


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