A group of East Baltimore elected officials vowed Wednesday to shut down construction, public funding and permits at the $1.8 billion East Baltimore Development Inc. project, saying that the massive development effort has failed to hire local workers and companies, build housing for relocated families and return financial benefits to the community.
With a backdrop of Johns Hopkins Hospital and a tall crane that is being used to build a $170 million lab for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, nearly a dozen officials gathered to criticize the 10-year-old project because they said it had not been beneficial to the community as originally promised in a 2002 agreement signed by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley.
“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired,” said Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. “And we’re going to shut EBDI down today.”
About 75 residents of the Middle East community had gathered for the event, and many cheered, shouting, “amen,” “shame on them” and “outrageous.” It was the most outward display of public anger for the EBDI project, once hailed as the city’s shining hope for a “new East Baltimore” by many of the same elected officials.
EBDI’s CEO, Christopher Shea, declined to answer questions in person at the event.
He later said in an emailed statement: “The east side leadership expressed honest and deeply felt frustration with local hiring and local contracting in the project. The fact that we have a better record on these than anyone in the state of Maryland is little comfort for any of us in these hard times. We need to do better, everyday. They also made clear that their complaint is with the [Department of Health and Mental Hygiene] project. They are meeting with the [Maryland Economic Development Corp.] team to resolve their concerns, because they have exclusive control of that project.”
City Councilman Carl Stokes, whose 12th District includes part of the EBDI project and who is a nonvoting member of the EBDI board of trustees, said the board, which includes Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels, city Deputy Chief Kaliope Parthemos and city housing commissioner Paul Graziano, was unaware of the controversy surrounding the hiring and housing issues at the development.
“Ain’t nothing happening in the meetings,” Stokes said of the EBDI board. “The deal-making happens outside of the meetings. The meeting is a sham for us. There’s nothing happening in the meetings of relevance to the people who live in this community. Nothing.”
EBDI’s board chairman Douglas W. Nelson, former president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has invested about $63.5 million in the EBDI project, according to a 2011 investigation by The Daily Record, did not respond to emailed questions.
In all, 82 percent of the workforce that has built a $60 million graduate student tower for Johns Hopkins students lives outside of the city, the officials said.
Young said he and the other elected officials had met with representatives of MEDCO. the state’s development arm that is building the DHMH lab, on Wednesday and were told that concrete workers for the project were coming from outside the U.S.
“This is a somber day. We learned something today,” Young said. “They said they couldn’t find concrete workers here. They are getting them from Honduras. That is totally unacceptable. We are standing in solidarity that this project cannot go any further. We’ve been at the table for 11 years, asking for something that we shouldn’t have to ask for.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake did not attend the event, but her spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, said in an email Wednesday that the mayor supports minority inclusion at the EBDI project.
“The largest ongoing project within EBDI is the state health lab, and the state will make a determination about its continued construction,” O’Doherty’s statement said. “We support all efforts to increase local hiring and economic inclusion. There also must be careful consideration before calling for actions that would result in any city residents being put out of work. We encourage all parties to work toward a constructive solution.”
City Councilman Warren Branch, whose 13th District encompasses much of the EBDI footprint, said the development has drained the community economically and emotionally over the past decade.
“What was promised to you all in 2002 was a dream of East Baltimore,” Branch said. “As you look today, you will find out that it is truly a nightmare. Because let’s face it — with the development that’s going on in East Baltimore, there should be no one looking for employment.
“We have gone through a battery of consultants and have received a bulk of recommendations. We are tired of looking around our community and seeing hundreds of contractors and workers — outside contractors and outside workers — that is building and flourishing while our own community suffers. I see our community begging for jobs trying to take care of their families while they are overlooked as if they don’t exist. This must stop now.”
A six-month investigation of the EBDI project by The Daily Record in 2011 showed that, at that point, the project had stalled after $564.7 million had been spent — $212.6 million in public funds — as 732 households have been relocated from the 88-acre site. More than 1,300 houses and buildings have either been demolished or are slated to come down.
The project’s costs, calculated as of Jan. 31, 2011, included a $21.2 million federal loan, $78 million in tax increment financing bonds and $53 million in state capital funds. Other investment in the project included private and foundation funding that totaled $306.7 million and $45.4 million in federal tax credits.
New activity has started at the site during the last year, such as the DHMH lab and a $30 million parking garage.
Originally planned around a world-class biotech park linked to Hopkins with up to five buildings, the EBDI project has been redesigned this past year to include a public park, grocery store, hotel, commercial and retail space and up to 2,000 new units of housing.
A $40 million public charter school at the site is expected to break ground next month, funded through tax increment financing bonds, private donations and public funding.
Stokes said the school project would not be subject to the “shutdown” of EBDI zoning, funding or permit requests.
That action would target residential and commercial development, which he said have lagged.
“Eight hundred families have been dislocated — they were told they had the first right of return,” Stokes said. “But they can’t return to vacant land.”
Shea’s email said the coming school and rental residential construction would be done by minority contractors.
“The next phase of residential development will be done by a local minority developer and a local minority contractor,” the statement said. “The contractor for the new $40 million school is a local minority firm. The next phase of commercial — the hotel and retail center — is being developed and led by a local minority partnership. There is $130 million in development on tap, all through local minority developers and contractors.
“We are beginning to have these successes, due in no small measure to the leadership of the local electeds, and as we deliver on these inclusion opportunities, the local electeds will strongly support our progress. They were clear about that today. If we slip into weaker performance, they will be absolutely right to call us out and hold us accountable. And they were clear about that today. We are on the same page.”
In April, EBDI officials presented figures that showed only 79 local residents were hired for construction work at the redevelopment between November 2007 and March 31, 2012. A work group headed by EBDI executive Cheryl Washington is compiling a report on how to strengthen local hiring, she said Wednesday. That report is expected to be completed in July.
State Del. Talmadge Branch said Wednesday that MEDCO officials told the elected officials there were 20 East Baltimore residents presently working at the DHMH lab site. He said: “I feel like it’s a slap in the face.”
Stokes said a series of protests by community members for jobs at the EBDI site had left a stain on the project. In March, four protestors were arrested near the DHMH construction site by city police during a protest led by representatives of Community Churches United, a group affiliated with the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
“People are being arrested now who have been marching. This is like we’re back in the 1940s or ’50s when black people had to march for their rights. This is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen politically. This development is the most outrageous and shameful act I’ve seen,” Stokes said.
Young said he would personally block any requests made by EBDI for legislation or funding. State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden added that the project would receive no state funding until the hiring and housing problems were addressed by EBDI leaders.
“Whatever it takes. By any means necessary,” McFadden said of future action against EBDI. “The door is open, EBDI. It is up to you whether you want to work with us to do the right thing.”