Former Baltimore City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. has been appointed chairman of the board of directors of East Baltimore Development Inc., the 11-year-old nonprofit in charge of the $1.8 billion redevelopment located north of Johns Hopkins University Hospital in the area known as Middle East.
Zollicoffer takes over for Douglas Nelson, the retired chairman of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which has invested nearly $100 million in the project as a partner with EBDI. Other partners include the city and Hopkins.
Nelson, chairman for nearly three years, has officially resigned from the board. He said Monday he recommended Zollicoffer — a longtime member of the EBDI board who was appointed by former Mayor Sheila Dixon — as his replacement.
“I think Thurman is not only committed to but deeply experienced in strategies that result in broader participation in the economy, contracts, employment and wealth-creation opportunities,” Nelson said. “I think we are at the point where we are increasing the economic benefits to the local entrepreneurs there, and that is a crucial deliverable — and he is in the best position to deliver that as anyone I know.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed Zollicoffer to the post last month without fanfare.
Among his first priorities as EBDI chairman will be to jumpstart housing at the 88-acre site in conjunction with the 2014 opening of a new public charter school, Zollicoffer said.
Columbia-based Ryland Homes is negotiating to build new housing near the charter school site in the 2000 block of E. Eager St. A request for proposals for the housing construction was posted by EBDI in June 2012, but has stalled, even as the school construction has proceeded.
“We need to get some shovels in the ground and get going,” said Zollicoffer, a partner at Whiteford Taylor Preston LLP. “Now we’ve got to race and get some residences built. It’s moving slow, but it’s moving. We need to get the residential part of that kicked in gear, and we need to get it kicked into gear tomorrow.”
At an EBDI board retreat late last month, Zollicoffer said, the housing issues were high priority. (EBDI board meetings are closed to the public, and minutes of the meetings are not available for review.)
The EBDI project is now centered on construction of the $42 million, K-8 charter school. Known as the Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School, it is expected to open in 2014 at 2100 Ashland Ave. The 7-acre campus will also hold the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Early Childhood Center.
The charter school is expected to attract new residents to the EBDI area, Zollicoffer said, and the pressure to build new housing for families to return to Middle East is intense.
Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership, the project’s master developer, has said it projects construction of up to 1,200 new housing units at the site within the next five or so years. The Verde Group, of Baltimore, and The Reinvestment Fund, of Philadelphia, have conversion and rehab projects underway in the area.
Zollicoffer said he also will oversee a downsizing of the nonprofit EBDI organization, expected to take place over a five-year period as different phases of the project are completed and more of the work shifts to private developers.
“We’re going to be changing the fabric of the community and rebuilding it, making it stronger,” he said, of the challenges ahead. “To get new businesses started and basically start the economic engine of east Baltimore with the help of the residents.”
Zollicoffer said he had met with EBDI, Casey and Hopkins executives over the past month and now is meeting with EBDI’s finance, development and security committees “trying to get a firm” understanding of the tasks that lie ahead.
The massive redevelopment was launched officially in 2002 by then-Mayor, now Gov. Martin O’Malley, for whom Zollicoffer served as city solicitor.
The original plans called for a world-class biotech park linked to Hopkins and new housing to be built where hundreds of aged and blighted row houses once stood.
So far, though, only one private biotech building, named for major Hopkins benefactor John G. Rangos Sr., has been built. A new state health lab for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is also under construction.
A nearly six-acre park is planned for the site where housing and biotech buildings were originally designated. Called Eager Park, that part of the EBDI project will be publicly funded.
Zollicoffer said that EBDI’s finances are being monitored by EBDI CEO Christopher Shea.
“Until 2016, we’re pretty good,” Zollicoffer said of the EBDI budget. “We’re going to need some new markets tax credits to kick on and some [funding] from traditional avenues.”
Shea did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
In a 2011 investigative series, The Daily Record reported that EBDI had committed $564 million to date to the redevelopment project, $212.6 million of that in public funds that included loans and grants and the sale of $78 million in tax increment financing bonds.
More than 600 Middle East residents had been relocated to make room for the project and many of their homes razed. Today, much of the area is either wide-open undeveloped fields or abandoned properties.
EBDI officials, Zollicoffer said, continue to monitor whether former residents want to return to their community. Some residents have relocated to new properties within the footprint.
A Walgreens store is expected to open in late November at Washington and Ashland avenues. A restaurant, Cuban Revolution, and a 7-Eleven store have opened at the EBDI site this past year.
Nelson said his tenure as board chairman was a mix — at times challenging and then gratifying because of connections he made in the local community.
“We survived this recession, which smart money said couldn’t be done and I am so proud of that,” he said. “It was extremely rough.
“It was as challenging an enterprise as I was privileged to be involved in in the 25 years I worked at Annie E. Casey Foundation,” Nelson said, of the EBDI development that knit together public and private philanthropic efforts over the years.
Of the often controversial and rocky times EBDI officials and board members have had over recent years with dissatisfied and former residents of Middle East, Nelson added: “I personally forged some extraordinarily strong friendships with people who were adversaries. And I consider it a personal accomplishment.”