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State budget includes $1.3M for park in EBDI

Gov. Martin O’Malley has directed $1.3 million in state general funds toward efforts to begin construction of a six-acre park in the massive East Baltimore Development Inc. project, according to his supplemental budget request.

The planned Eager Park site is located along North Wolfe Street between Ashland Avenue and Biddle Street, north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital complex. (Josh Cooper / The Daily Record)

The money will be the first of $12 million needed to build Eager Park, a commitment one city official said would totally come from state taxpayers, some from Program Open Space, a state program created for land preservation. State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, lobbied for the funds alongside the city delegation.

So far, more than $220 million in public funds has been committed to the struggling EBDI project, according to city, state and federal funding sources. A total of more than $564 million — including private funds from the project’s partners, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Johns Hopkins University — has been committed to the 88-acre redevelopment thus far.

The redevelopment of Middle East, located just north of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, began in 2001 while O’Malley was mayor of Baltimore with the formation of EBDI as a nonprofit development entity.

More than 732 households have been relocated from the community and at least 669 houses and other buildings have been razed. The site of the new Eager Park is about a block away from nearly 600 derelict vacant houses that were slated by EBDI for demolition years ago, most of them still owned by the city and private owners, including Johns Hopkins University.

The plan for adding Eager Park to the EBDI site emerged last year as part of a redesign of the 88-acre project under a third master plan.

The project was originally intended as a biotech park surrounded by about 2,200 new housing units. This past year, a 20-story tower opened for Hopkins graduate students as well as a 900-space garage next door.

But funding for the housing portion of the EBDI project — and the park — has been a constant stress point, EBDI developers have said during public meetings held recently.

The Eager Park funds were not included in O’Malley’s original capital budget proposal for fiscal 2014. Instead, the amount appeared in a supplement to that proposal released on Monday evening under “East Baltimore Revitalization Projects.”

McFadden on Tuesday confirmed that the line item would go toward construction of Eager Park. The park will stretch along North Wolfe Street between Ashland Avenue and Biddle Street.

He said he requested $12 million for the green space, but that was rejected.

“We’ll take that as a start,” McFadden said of the reduced amount. “That’ll get us rolling.”

Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, said the money was part of the governor’s ongoing commitment to “East Baltimore commercial development.”

“The supplemental budget is just that,” Winfield said. “He felt that amount was appropriate for this.”

Winfield added that she expected new money would be budgeted in the future.

Program Open Space was created as a land preservation tool and is a part of the state Department of Natural Resources. It was started to “purchase land for state parks, forests, wildlife habitat, natural, scenic and cultural resources for public use,” the DNR website states.

DNR Secretary John R. Griffin said Tuesday that the plan is to seek about $1.5 million in Open Space funds for Eager Park for the 2015 state budget.

Plans for Eager Park are still in development, according to Scott Levitan, senior vice president for Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, master developer of the $1.8 billion project, who outlined the park’s design before a city review panel in January.

Funding for the park was an issue, Levitan said at the time.

Levitan did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Christopher Shea, president and CEO of EBDI, also did not return a call or email for comment on the public funds for Eager Park.

City Councilman Carl Stokes said the state is going to pay for the entire park at EBDI, even though he believes Forest City should bear some of the costs.

“The taxpayers are paying for everything,” said Stokes, whose 12th District includes part of the EBDI site. “Not the developers. They are not paying for anything. Why? That’s the deal. I’m in Baltimore; this is what happens.

“I think the developer should be putting money into amenities to enhance the project.”

When asked why Forest City is not committing funds to help build Eager Park, Stokes said: “They don’t have to.”

In addition to the $1.3 million in state general funds, the House of Delegates last week also approved $5 million to EBDI next year for demolition costs at the site as part of the state’s capital budget. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee has voted to keep the $5 million demolition request in the budget request, but the full Senate has yet to vote on the entire capital budget.