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Middle East residents fear rising values will lift tax bills

Residents of Middle East met for the fourth time Thursday night with developers and officials at East Baltimore Development Inc. to discuss a new master plan for the 88-acre site.

The meeting was at times tense, with charges of mistrust and fears about rising property values and higher taxes. It was a continuation of three other meetings between the group and the EBDI officials over the future course of the development.

“It’s about doing the right thing for the community,” said Lisa Francis, a resident, who chided Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership Senior Vice President Scott Levitan at the beginning of his presentation.

Click here for all EBDI-related storiesLevitan spoke of future retail, hotel and commercial development at the EBDI site and detailed a plan to put in a park that would occupy three blocks near Johns Hopkins Hospital.

He told the residents they would be asked to take part in a “demand study” to determine what kind of retail would be installed at the development.

Levitan said two restaurants are planned to open next spring and summer, as well as an 11,000-square-foot national chain pharmacy, and a new parking garage at Washington Street and Ashland Avenue. In addition, EBDI is seeking to add a 20,000-square-foot grocery to the site.

“We want to ask the residents about the kind of retail they want,” Levitan said, adding that there would be 80,000 square feet of retail space at the site when they were done.

One resident, Reginald Fitzgerald, questioned Levitan about the impact of the improvements on existing homeowners who live just outside the EBDI footprint.

“The taxes will increase with all the redevelopment,” Fitzgerald said, asking that EBDI and Forest City put their promises to help residents deal with higher taxes in writing. The officials didn’t his request.

Three previous meetings — two in July and one in August — ended with residents protesting the new development plan, saying they believed they were excluded from the planning and, therefore, felt disenfranchised from the process.

They also raised questions about whether they would be priced out of their neighborhood once new housing units, set to cost $240,000 and above, are built and offered for sale.

Levitan has said the new master plan includes the addition of 243 rental units along Eager Street and 102 for-sale units nearby that are hoped to stimulate demand.

Developers are being sought, Levitan said, and construction is hoped to begin by the middle of next year.

EBDI, a nonprofit formed in 2001 by the city while Gov. Martin O’Malley was mayor, was given responsibility for redeveloping Middle East. So far it has spent more than $564 million — $212.6 million of that in public funds — on the project, an investigation by The Daily Record found.

EBDI has since formed a partnership with the city and state, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Johns Hopkins University for the redevelopment.

The $1.8 billion project was originally intended to be the site of a world-class biotech park with 1.1 million square feet and as many as five life-sciences buildings. Nearby, up to 900 new housing units were to be constructed.

But today, those plans have been stalled and are under revision.

More than 700 households were relocated from the site. More than 600 houses and other buildings have been demolished, and another 700 vacant buildings awaiting demolition.

During an Aug. 11 meeting at EBDI’s office to discuss the new master plan, Middle East residents questioned the motives and intent of EBDI and Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership in the latest plan to redesign their community.

And on July 28, residents shut down a meeting and did not allow Forest City’s Levitan to present the plan because he did not make copies available before the meeting.

The new development plan, by local marketing firm Carton Donofrio, is the third master plan in the redevelopment project’s decade-long history.

It calls for “revisioning” the Middle East community and renaming it Beacon Park. Other highlights in the 52-page document include:

-345 upscale housing units;

-a 6-acre, three-block urban park;

-a grocery store;

-a “wellness” theme to connect the project with nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The report also calls for adding retail and office space, a hotel and a $40 million public school.

No funding sources were identified by Carton Donofrio or Forest City.

Instead, the draft report states a need to find funding for rental and for-sale housing, the park, a 44,000-square-foot fitness facility, a 12,000-square-foot grocery, a hotel and possibly a conference center.