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Middle East may become Beacon Park after a makeover

Developers of an 88-acre site in East Baltimore will soon unveil a new blueprint for the stalled $1.8 billion redevelopment that includes a proposal to rebrand the area and change the name of the Middle East community to Beacon Park.

Sources close to the project say the study by the Baltimore advertising agency Carton Donofrio Partners includes plans to jump-start residential development there by 2014.

East Baltimore Development Inc.’s developers said last year that the study was commissioned to create a plan to market Middle East to middle-class families and commercial developers, using “psychographics and additional market research” to transform an urban neighborhood pockmarked by blight and crime into an upscale area.

The project spearheaded by EBDI, in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is the nation’s largest urban renewal project. It is located just north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Now a decade old, plans to develop the site into a world-class biotech research park and add up to 900 new housing units have stalled, even as more than 1,300 households have been relocated from the community and 31 acres containing rowhouses, churches and businesses have been razed.

Another 57 acres of vacant rowhouses is awaiting demolition.

‘Maintain the integrity of the community’

Plans to rename the community were first revealed by EBDI and the project’s master developer, Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership last summer. They were met by protests from community residents and some city officials.

Likewise, the proposed name change from Middle East to Beacon Park was met with objections Monday.

“I think we ought to maintain the integrity of the community,” said Carl Stokes, a councilman from the 12th District, who represents part of the EBDI site.

“No one’s renamed Canton. They tried to rename Pigtown, but the residents didn’t let them. No one renamed Locust Point, Patterson Park or Highlandtown,” Stokes continued, ticking off other city communities where redevelopment has occurred.

Stokes said he attended a meeting late last week where the Beacon Park name was revealed along with parts of the marketing study. There, he said, EBDI and Forest City officials said the new name could evoke images of “a bright light” on the city’s East Side.

“I remained silent when they rolled it out,” he said.

Asked why, Stokes explained: “It will be seen as nonsensical when it hits the street.”

Residents opposed

Donald Gresham, a Middle East resident and community activist who chose to remain in Middle East instead of being relocated, rejected the proposed name.

“Can you tell me why?” he asked. “They took the people and now the name. We are an afterthought once again. And, of course, they have to spend money to change it.”

Gresham said the name Beacon Park “does not fit in with the community as a whole” and is another attempt to diminish the identity of Middle East.

“They are doing whatever they want to do,” Gresham said. “Now you want to take the name of the community that was once their lives to fit into your equation. As far as they are concerned, it’s their community. Whatever we think, it doesn’t matter. It’s not right.”

Scott Levitan, senior vice president for Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, said Beacon Park was “one of a few” new names being considered at the development, but he declined to reveal any other names. He also would not say how much of the 88 acres would be renamed.

“We’re evaluating how we can most successfully market this development project,” Levitan said.

“We are developers doing a development project and we are doing nothing differently” than other developers who build and name other projects, he continued.

“Middle East exists, it always exists and it’s not in our control to change that,” Levitan added.

Levitan said a series of community meetings would be scheduled to discuss future plans for the development and the new name.

Christopher Shea, CEO of EBDI, did not respond to requests for comment on the proposed Beacon Park name Monday.

Third master plan for the site

The Carton Donofrio study is the third master plan for the EBDI site. Two previous plans, which cost $1.8 million, were in limbo as the project stalled, in part because of the recession.

Asked how much Forest City had paid Carton Donofrio for the marketing study, he said, “None of your business.”

Shea said last year that the Carton Donofrio plan cost EBDI $130,000. Forest City also helped pay for the survey but Levitan has refused to say how much the company paid.

Cleve Corlett, a Carton Donofrio researcher who conducted the study, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

An investigative series in The Daily Record earlier this year on the EBDI project disclosed EBDI’s and Forest City’s new strategy for the development: To lure middle class residents to the area with a variety of housing and commercial development that includes a hotel, grocery store and restaurants.

The Carton Donofrio study, which sought participation from Hopkins employees and some community members, asked a series of questions about potential housing options, parks and recreation, retail and quality of life amenities the EBDI site could have. It asked about lofts, condos, traditional or contemporary row houses and whether potential residents would pay between $191,000 and $390,000 for such dwellings.

It asked about the addition of upscale perks like an organic grocery store, fitness center and community arts center in the Middle East area, highlighting a “stress-free” walking commute to Hopkins’ East Baltimore campus and “the best public education” at EBDI’s planned $40 million public school to be built with private funds.

The survey was sent by email in February to Hopkins employees by Andrew B. Frank, special assistant to Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels on economic development initiatives. It offered an incentive of 10 Amazon gift cards of $100 each to survey participants through a random drawing and a $300 donation to Habitat for Humanity as a goodwill gesture from the institution.

The EBDI project began in 2001 and so far has spent more than $564.7 million. About $212.6 million of that commitment is public investment from the sale of $78 million in city tax increment financing bonds, federal loans and grants and city investment of $30.5 million.