To help jump-start stalled development on nearly 34 acres of land northeast of the Johns Hopkins Medical complex, the City Council is mulling over zoning changes that would permit high-rise buildings and market-rate housing.
The new codes would convert certain residential areas along Rutland Avenue, Eager Street, Chase Street and Wolfe Street from “general residential” districts to “community business” and “neighborhood business” districts.
The changes would allow construction of multi-story apartment buildings as well as commercial buildings under the auspices of the East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI) renewal project.
The legislation comes at a time when community activists are raising questions about a lack of “affordable” housing in East Baltimore – the topic of a public forum Saturday at St. Wenceslaus Hall, a block from where EBDI tore down more than 200 rowhouses to make way for a new elementary school.
The proposed zoning would amend the planned unit development, or PUD, to permit higher height restrictions for dwellings, a planned 200-room extended stay “gateway hotel” to be connected to the Johns Hopkins Hospital and market-rate apartment buildings.
Christopher Shea, president and CEO of EBDI, said in an e-mail that the proposed zoning “aligns with the existing Master Plan and PUD, so it makes great sense to us.”
The controversial history of the EBDI, by Joan Jacobson
Councilman Warren Branch, whose 13th District includes much of the EBDI area, introduced the legislation. Branch did not respond to requests for comment on the zoning changes. He did not attend a public hearing held at City Hall earlier this month on the legislation.
800 Families Moved
The move to rezone is the latest effort to try to revive the Eastside project that, started 13 years ago by the city, has been hampered by lack of strong leadership, funding problems, recession woes and the constant rewriting of its development and master plans.
Carl Stokes, whose 12th District also includes a portion of the EBDI area, said the new zoning legislation is awaiting a vote from the committee and then the full Council after “questions are answered” about a lack of plans for new residential development at EBDI.
The existing residential areas targeted by the rezoning have been vacated for several years after the EBDI and its partners – Johns Hopkins University, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Forest City-New East Baltimore Partnership and the city – moved close to 800 families out of the traditional rowhouses to make way for what they described as a biotech park and new housing on 88 acres of development.
But so far, only one biotech building exists today, the John G. Rangos Sr. building, and fewer than 300 housing units have been built, most of them apartments that include senior housing.
Commercial starts at the EBDI site have been a 7-Eleven at the corner of Eager Street and Ashland Avenue and a Walgreens. A restaurant, Cuban Revolution, opened on the ground level of the Rangos building and shut down late last year. Plans to open a Teavolve restaurant have been scrapped.
A new laboratory for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is under construction at the EBDI site after Gov. Martin O’Malley – who kicked off the EBDI project while he was mayor of Baltimore – lobbied to have the lab relocated to the project site on property originally designated for private biotech development.
New housing – promised to the displaced Middle East residents who wished to return one day to their community – has not so far materialized.
No Low-Income Housing
Frustration about the absence of low-income housing came to the surface two years ago when a group of state and local representatives gathered at EBDI headquarters and threatened to shut down the project if housing and job opportunities were not made available to local residents.
“The elected officials are very concerned that over these many years of the EBDI development that, in fact, the main developer of the project [Forest City] has not built one single-family home,” Stokes told The Brew last week.
“That was part of the rationale for doing this, to create a great new integrated community. So over these past 13 years, there’s a disappointment.”
A member of the EBDI board, Stokes said the corporation recently took back the development rights from Forest City so it could spark private residential development at the site.
Columbia-based Ryland Homes is expected to break ground on about 20 townhouses within six months at Eager and Chester Streets. The dwellings are expected to sell in the $200,000 range.
Focus on a New School
EBDI is also using the Request for Proposals process to seek new development around the Elmer A. Henderson-Hopkins charter school, which currently looks over acres of vacant land from demolished rowhouses.
Asked about future plans for the vacant lots, president Shea said, “EBDI will issue a number of housing notices (RFPs) in the coming months. When we do, they will be available on our web site.”
The RFPs are expected to call for market-rate housing starts.
The school has been EBDI’s focus after its mission shifted from a biotech park. Officials are promoting the benefits that the K-8 school, administered by the Hopkins School of Education, could bring to an “emerging” neighborhood in one of the city’s most blighted and impoverished districts.
In addition, EBDI and Forest City have proposed plans to build a seven-acre park located along Wolfe Street called Eager Park.
State taxpayers will pay for that park thanks to Gov. O’Malley, who included funds for planning and initial construction in his supplemental budget last year.