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New grassroots organization formed in Middle East

Middle East residents have formed a grassroots organization to advocate for increased voting representation on the East Baltimore Development Inc. board because they believe they have been excluded from making key decisions in the $1.8 billion redevelopment effort.

The mobilization is part of a resurgence of community activism in and around the 88-acre site where EBDI and its partners — the Johns Hopkins University, the city and state, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership — have committed more than $564 million to rebuild the community, $212.6 million of that in public funds.

The project is far behind schedule despite the massive commitment of funds and the virtual elimination of the African-American community known as Middle East to make room for the new development.

Click here for all EBDI-related storiesThe Middle East residents met Monday night in a small room at St. Wenceslaus Church on Ashland Avenue.

They said they plan to seek voting representation on the EBDI board, which is made up of 18 members including Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels, Rouse Co. Foundation Chairman Anthony W. Deering and Associated Black Charities President and CEO Diane Bell-McKoy.

Christopher Shea, CEO of EBDI, said in an email Tuesday he could not comment on the issue of more board seats for community members.

But he added, “I do think that the EBDI leadership would agree with my view that strong community leadership and participation is a very good thing.”

Douglas W. Nelson, former president of the Casey Foundation and current EBDI board chairman, did not respond to a request for comment.

One community member, Nia Redmond, holds a voting position on the board. Redmond said last week she plans to leave the board in the near future.

Donald Gresham, a community leader who chose to remain a resident of Middle East and is waiting to move into a renovated rowhouse on McDonough Street, said the community needs more representation on the EBDI board.

“It speaks low of us that we don’t have intelligence or the opportunity to speak to our community,” he said. “You can’t see the vision unless you live in it.”

Gresham said he helped to form the new organization, the Community Housing and Relocation Work Group, to address issues facing the neighborhood as the redevelopment enters its second decade.

The EBDI project has led to the relocation of more than 600 residents and the demolition of 600 rowhouses and buildings so far. Another 700 houses and buildings await demolition.

Formation of the group represents a new round of community activism concerning the EBDI site. The Save Middle East Action Committee was formed in 2001 to help advocate on behalf of more than 800 households in the community then targeted for demolition and relocation under eminent domain law.

SMEAC disbanded in 2008, citing a lack of interest and funding.

But as the EBDI project prepares to enter another phase that officials say will feature a new design, including a 6-acre park along North Wolfe Street and expanded commercial and retail space, residents are once again demanding to be heard.

Another advocacy group, the Middle East Truth-Reconciliation Community Council, has also recently formed to address issues similar to those noted by Gresham’s group, including bringing jobs and affordable housing to the development near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Both groups plan to attend an EBDI meeting Thursday night that will focus on the future of the redevelopment.

“What affects one affects us all,” said Tim Parrish, 48, a leader of the community council. “I felt like we needed a community group. Don’t most communities have a community group? So why don’t we have one? There’s not that many of us left. Most of the people are elderly.”

Parrish said jobs, economic inclusion and transparency are key issues for his group. As the owner of a small dump truck company, he said he has received no work on the project.

“We are trying to keep the community together and not have us all divided,” he said.

Thursday’s meeting will be a continuation of a July 28 effort by the developer, Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, to unveil a new master plan for the site.

Angry residents, including Gresham and Parrish, shut down the meeting after Scott Levitan, senior vice president for Forest City, acknowledged he had not provided in advance written copies of the 55-page plan drawn up by local marketing firm Carton Donofrio Partners.

The report’s proposals include changing the name of Middle East to Beacon Park and adding more retail and commercial buildings, upscale housing and the park.

The plan also includes a general theme of wellness because of the community’s proximity to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Gloria Peterson, a Middle East resident who lives in the 700 block of North Collington Avenue, said Monday at Gresham’s meeting that the EBDI board needs to hear more from the residents.

Almost none of the board members live anywhere near the community, she said, and that has caused a cultural divide.

“These people don’t have any idea of what we live every day,” Peterson said of the EBDI board. “It is not fair to us. It is not fair to our children. They come in these poor, low-income neighborhoods and do what they want to do. Nobody has been held accountable.”

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who represents part of the area, attended the meeting at St. Wenceslaus and told the residents the EBDI project has become mired in problems, many stemming from the recession, that have stalled demolition, job creation and construction of biotech buildings and mixed-income housing.

Stokes said elected officials met with EBDI leaders recently and told them to stop building at the site “until they have housing.”

“It’s a very tangled web,” Stokes said, “and we’re doing our best 10 years later to untangle it.”