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Council’s next EBDI hearing in November

An investigative hearing into the $1.8 billion redevelopment of Middle East by East Baltimore Development Inc. will continue at City Hall on Nov. 9.

Councilman Carl Stokes

Councilman Carl Stokes

Councilman Carl Stokes adjourned a contentious three-hour hearing before the City Council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee on March 30 amid calls for more solid data from EBDI.

He scheduled the continuation for next month and said he has requested updated construction, financial and job information on the development.

“Hopefully, we’ll get some figures and an idea of where they are and where they are going,” Stokes said of the hearing, which is scheduled to be televised beginning at 5 p.m. in council chambers.

“EBDI and Forest City [Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, the project’s master developer] are expecting a tough hearing,” Stokes said.

At the March 30 hearing, Stokes rebuked EBDI officials over incomplete data on jobs and housing, telling EBDI CEO Christopher Shea: “At this point, it’s very hard for us to feel comfortable.”

In response, Shea and EBDI board chair Douglas W. Nelson pledged new fiscal transparency and improved communication with the public over the project.

Nelson is the retired CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has invested $63.5 million in the EBDI project. The Johns Hopkins University is also a partner in the development.

EBDI was established in 2001 by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley as a nonprofit development group charged with transforming the Middle East neighborhood. Under that umbrella, the EBDI board meetings are closed to the public and its internal fiscal reports are not public.

To date, the EBDI project has committed more than $564 million — $212.6 million of that in public funds.

Stokes, a non-voting member of the EBDI board whose 12th District includes a portion of the 88-acre EBDI site, chaired the initial hearing.

Councilman Warren Branch, also a non-voting member of the EBDI board whose 13th District encompasses a majority of the EBDI property, did not return a call to comment on the hearing.

The inquiry was initiated Feb. 7 in a unanimous vote by the City Council, days after The Daily Record published a five-part investigative series detailing how the EBDI project, the nation’s largest urban redevelopment, had been plagued by problems including a lack of new housing, jobs and life sciences development.

So far, 732 households have been relocated from the area as the development enters its second decade. A total of 669 houses and buildings have been demolished on 31 acres, and another 700 are ready to come down.

But replacement housing has not been constructed as originally planned.

EBDI projected it would have 599 new homes completed or under construction by now, but there are only 220 new units, most of them rental apartments for senior citizens and other tenants. Five market-rate units were built on Eager Street and listed for as much as $320,000. Only two of those condominiums have sold in three years.

Plans for a world-class biotech park, once hailed as the linchpin of the development because of a link to nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital, have been scaled back. So far only one of five planned life sciences buildings has been built: the John G. Rangos Sr. Building opened in 2009 and is not fully leased.

Hopkins is building a 20-story housing tower for its graduate students, to open next summer, and Forest City is building a 1,400-space parking garage next to it. As governor, O’Malley has directed a $184.8 million state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene lab to be built at the site where a private biotech building was originally planned.

In addition, EBDI and Forest City officials have commissioned a third master plan for the project, which is under review by the community.

That plan includes construction of a large urban park where new housing and life science buildings were originally planned and changing the name of the community from Middle East to Beacon Park. It has been met with controversy in the community during a series of meetings this summer.

Stokes said there was a pressing need to continue the public hearing.

“We are going to ask them to bring in answers to the questions we had before,” he said. “Our push is for jobs, jobs and jobs, with a focus of hiring from Baltimore.”

Shea said in an email Monday that he welcomed the continuation of the hearing.

“I think that public hearings are useful for everyone,” he said. “They provide an opportunity for the project partners to give a report on the current status of development, relocation, employment and contracting; they give the public an opportunity to express support as well as concerns on matters that directly affect them; and they allow our elected representatives to gauge our progress on all of these.”

Dozens of East Baltimore residents have met over the summer in an attempt to become more engaged in the EBDI development. Two grassroots organizations have formed to help shepherd the efforts.

Donald Gresham, who had been homeless but worked and saved enough to purchase a home in Middle East only to have it taken under eminent domain, is preparing to move into a replacement townhouse on McDonough Street.

He is president of one of the grassroots groups, the Community Housing and Relocation Work Group, and spoke out at the March 30 hearing. He said he plans to attend the Nov. 9 hearing too.

“This will give the community the ability to get the support of the representatives from City Hall,” Gresham said. “And it’s an opportunity to get an update on the project.”