Scott Kashnow said he was shocked, then furious, when he learned that the empty lot he and other community members had transformed into the city’s “Best Ornamental Community Garden” was about to be handed over to a private developer.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening,” he said. “There are tons of empty spaces in this community that need to be addressed, yet they picked our lot.”
Between Monday afternoon, when notice of the impending transfer was released, and Wednesday morning, when the Board of Estimates was set to vote on the item, Kashnow and others from the Poppleton neighborhood peppered the mayor’s office, Housing Department and City Councilman William “Pete” Welch with protests.
Their quick action got results. On Wednesday, the board took the rare step of pulling the item from the agenda, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledging to keep the neighborhood better informed of the city’s plans.
The mayor blamed litigation between the city and La Cite Development LLC, developer of an 11-acre parcel of mostly vacant land in Poppleton, for the mix-up resulting in 220 North Carey Street being added to the project.
“I am not the problem,” the mayor told Kashnow and four other residents who appeared before the board. “I share your frustration about the lack of progress. . . And Peter Engel [has] just committed to discussing and moving forward.”
Engel, deputy commissioner of the housing department, told the board that the agency had submitted the Carey Street lot for transfer to La Cite as it rushed to meet a court-imposed deadline to settle the litigation.
Engel later indicated that his office had not actually inspected the six parcels set to go to La Cite for scattered-site housing and was unaware that the Carey Street lot was part of a vibrant community park.
“It tells you that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” said Jane Buccheri, one of the protesters and president of the Hollins Roundhouse Association.
From “Big Hole” to “A Work of Art”
Flanked by two colorful wall murals, the parcel has been part of a cooperative venture by a half dozen community and art groups, led by the Franklin Square Community Association.
Aided by small grants from the PNC Transformative Art Project, Baltimore Community Foundation and Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts – the lot features rows of sunflowers, a rain garden and walkways, steps and benches featuring recycled granite slabs from historic buildings. The community has described its accomplishment as “the transformation of a blank lot from a big hole in our neighborhood into a work of art.”
“This park really energized everybody,” Kashnow said. “Kids and local residents all pitched in. We got a lot of help from the Civic Works, and from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Pierce Flanigan [contracting] company.”
In addition to winning the 2012 best ornamental garden award from the University of Maryland’s Master Gardeners program, the park, dubbed “Sunflower Village,” was also named an outstanding neighborhood greening project by Parks & People Foundation.
Last June, Krashnow and several other residents were given awards for their efforts at community-building in a ceremony featuring Mayor Rawlings-Blake.
Stalled Since 2006
The lot is on the western edge of the sprawling Poppleton Redevelopment Project, which envisions 1,600 new housing units and 100,000 square feet of commercial retail space in the desolate space northwest of the University of Maryland’s Biopark.
New York-based La Cite was designated developer of the property in 2006 by then-Mayor Martin O’Malley. Under the terms of the agreement, the city was to buy privately owned properties, clear the site and convey the property to La Cite’s Poppleton Development I, LLC.
Large swaths of land were cleared along Amity and Schroeder Streets, as well as Carrollton Avenue and Lexington, Saratoga and Fayette streets. But not a single new dwelling has been built.
Last May, the city filed suit to terminate its agreement with La Cite, citing lack of progress. La Cite counter-sued, charging that the city’s failure to secure clear titles to some properties and to keep the area safe had resulted in the developer’s failure to get financial backing.
On Wednesday, the housing department changed the terms of the agreement – adding some properties to be sold to La Cite and removing others – to settle the lawsuit. Under new terms being finalized, the city will give La Cite 18 more months (until late 2014) to close on the project and another three months to start construction.
At Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting, Sterling Walker complained that residents near the Poppleton site were never given updates on the project by the city.
“Nobody knows what’s going on. I’d really like to know what’s going on,” he said. “All you go on now is rumors. That’s all we get.”