The “Dead Zone” Stirs: Belated renewal slated for West Baltimore Street

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, March 11, 1998

For generations the 800-1000 blocks of West Baltimore Street in Poppleton have been a thorn in the side of city planning officials. Millions of dollars in public investment over several decades have been sunk into this stretch of once-historic cityscape that now consists largely of vacant lots, the legacy of neglected storefronts and rowhouses the city acquired and then demolished.

Today, nearly all of the city-owned properties on this three-block stretch are slated to be rebuilt as private homes or apartments, holding out the promise that the long-dormant corridor can be rehabilitated and returned to the tax rolls. But the city’s track record with regard to the neighborhood has made skeptics of area residents, who are taking a wait-and-see attitude about the fresh development plans for what many morosely call the “dead zone.”

On the north side of the 800 and 900 blocks, a development team made up of Atlantic Investment LLC; Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse; and Banks Contracting wants to build 100 rowhouses with garages. “It’s what they call ‘Georgetown-style’ townhouses,” says Atlantic’s attorney, Claude Edward Hitchcock. Hitchcock did not say how much the development would cost to build, but “funding is the issue” in the company’s ongoing exclusive negotiations with the city Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) over the properties.

The Atlantic site is located in the federal Empowerment Zone, a special district in which tax incentives and federal subsidies are available to boost job creation and urban renewal. The proposal was presented last summer to the Village Center of Poppleton (VCP), a nonprofit formed to oversee Empowerment Zone activities in the community.

Doris Hall, board chair of VCP, says the organization has “agreed in concept” with the Atlantic Investment team’s plan as presented to the group last summer, but she adds VCP hasn’t heard anything from the developers in “quite some time.” “If we don’t have some feedback,” Hall said during a March 6 meeting of the Village Center’s land-use committee, “we may want to change our commitment.”

Hitchcock says his perception is that the Poppleton community “is fairly excited” about the development because residents “did not want that street to be retail and did want additional middle-class families,” the market Atlantic is targeting. Hall agrees the middle-class flavor of Atlantic’s plan is in keeping with VCP’s desires: “We need more taxable income so that people vote more and have some influence” over the city’s decision-making process for the area.

Past plans to redevelop the Atlantic site have caused extensive controversy in the community. In 1979, a City Council bill to change the properties’ zoning from business to residential was defeated, but into the early 1990s HCD continued to base plans for the area on the defeated residential zoning. This irked residents who knew the land was zoned for businesses and hoped to see a commercial revitalization there.

In January 1991, the council considered a resolution calling for an independent audit of HCD’s use of federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) in Poppleton. The resolution, which did not pass, raised numerous questions about the city’s use of the federal funds. Poppleton residents say they’ve never gotten an adequate picture of how approximately $1.5 million in CDBG funds earmarked for redevelopment of what are now the Atlantic properties has been spent. In particular, concerns have been voiced about allocations of $100,000 for a temporary park in 1982 and $50,000 for public improvements in 1991, both in the 800 block of West Baltimore Street, where there is no tangible evidence of a park or recent improvements.

The $1.5 million does not include millions more in CDBG funds that went toward the relocation of the New Gold bottling plant, which stood at 926—944 W. Baltimore St. before it was demolished last month. In 1992, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development criticized as “excessive” the city’s proposed use of $5.5 million in CDBG funds for the plant’s relocation. No plans have been announced for the former New Gold site.

Nearly $1 million more in CDBG funds has been sunk into preparing the 1000 block of West Baltimore Street for renovation and redevelopment. On this block, HCD is working with the Frederick Avenue Development Corp. on a proposal to demolish and redevelop four city-owned historic properties and renovate parts of two others. Frederick’s current plans are for apartments and some commercial space.

In January, the city Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation approved the plan, which would save 1001 W. Baltimore St.–a circa-1830s structure the commission considers the most historic building remaining in the Poppleton area–and the arched facade of 1011 W. Baltimore. Frederick obtained development rights to these properties in 1993; at the same time it purchased 11 other properties on the same block for $150,000, about a quarter of their assessed value. Frederick offered to buy the 11 renovated properties after the previous developer defaulted on several city and state loans used to fix them up.

Frederick’s board chairperson, Leonard Moyer, did not return a reporter’s phone call. Neither did his attorney, Theodore Potthast.

Betsy Waters, president of the Hollins Market Neighborhood Association, said during the March 6 VCP committee meeting that her group wants “not to see any more rental developments” in its nine-block area of jurisdiction, which includes the Frederick proposal. But the neighborhood association has not taken an official stand on Moyer’s plans.

Some residents worry the two historic structures pegged for partial renovation, 1001 and 1011 W. Baltimore St., won’t survive the demolition of the surrounding properties. Their skepticism is based on an occurrence last month at nearby 946 W. Baltimore St. The historic, structurally sound corner building at that address was razed without a required permit when a city demolition contractor wrecked the former New Gold plant. Community leaders say they were told by city officials that the unpermitted demolition was an accident.

Moyer’s plans for the property have generated anxiety in the Hollins Market neighborhood since his company bought the parcels. In 1993, when Frederick acquired the 1000 block properties from the city, community leaders testified before the city Board of Estimates that they were worried Moyer would be an absentee landlord. Their concerns proved unfounded–Moyer can be seen on his property daily, perched in a chair on the sidewalk or chatting with passersby. And he has kept up his properties, although court records show Frederick is currently being sued by a contracting company that alleges Frederick owes $25,000 in unpaid bills for renovations done in 1994.

Ultimately, according to Hall, VCP hopes to see the West Baltimore Street corridor in Poppleton become a “corridor of health-related businesses and offices,” a strategy grounded in the hope that the proximity of the University of Maryland Medical Center and Bon Secours Hospital will attract health-care businesses. She also expresses hope that a land-use plan currently being prepared by VCP, to be completed in the coming months, will provide the impetus for actual redevelopment and bring to an end decades of controversial and thus far fruitless efforts to revitalize West Baltimore Street.

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