What’s an additional six to 12 months after a decade of waiting for a grandly ambitious West Baltimore housing project yet to break ground?
In what’s shaping up to be another Superblock on the West Side, the Board of Estimates today granted a fresh extension to La Cité Development of New York to acquire the first parcel of land at Poppleton – a project that’s been billed as worth $460 million but has yet to turn out a single unit of new housing.
The only recent action happening on the 14 acres of mostly vacant land is the allocation of future tax increment (TIF) bond money, coupled with promises by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake that the city is committed to redevelop a troubled section of West Baltimore near the site of the protest and rioting after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in April.
Last month, the City Council approved $58.6 million in TIF funds to provide infrastructure improvements to Poppleton, a patchwork of cleared land and dilapidated rowhouses west of Fremont Avenue and north of the University of Maryland Bio-Park.
In return for La Cité building 52 affordable housing units, the city has agreed to sell two blocks of cleared land to them at $1.50 a square foot – 10 times below the market value of $16 per square foot.
Pushing back the Date
The other 205 units of Phase 1A Poppleton would be market-rate housing, according to material released by the city Board of Finance, which at first rejected and then approved the transaction at two meetings in April.
La Cité was supposed to purchase the land for $145,000 from the housing department and break ground on two mid-rise apartment buildings this month.
Today’s amendment pushes back the settlement date to January 3, 2016 and allows Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano to grant an additional six-month delay to July 3, 2016.
This is the second extension for La Cité. Last fall, the company signed an agreement with the city to settle on the Phase 1A land by July 3, 2015.
Today the spending panel, led by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, unanimously approved the second extension without discussion. Pratt’s real estate office had earlier questioned the financial viability of the project.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake did not attend today’s board meeting, but her representative, Finance Director Henry J. Raymond, voted in favor of the extension.
Last month, Rawlings-Blake lauded the $58.6 million TIF as “a clear example of a city subsidy being used in our neighborhoods to support development that will create jobs and stabilize that neighborhood.”
Troubled from the Start
The Brew has written extensively about the project, whose troubles seemed to begin when it was placed in the hands of the novice La Cité group by the Martin O’Malley administration in 2005.
As the city spent millions of dollars demolishing hundreds of rowhouses in the ensuing years, La Cité failed to move forward on the project.
In 2012, the Rawlings-Blake administration tried to terminate the development agreement, but La Cité sued, charging that the housing department’s failure to clear the site had thwarted its efforts to line up financing and begin work.
The city and La Cité came to a settlement that resulted in the approval of the $58.6 million in TIF bonds to build public improvements on the site.
This is the second largest TIF approved for an ongoing project, the largest being $107 million awarded in 2013 for Michael Beatty’s Harbor Point. (In 2008, the Council granted a $160 million TIF for Patrick Turner’s Westport project that never materialized, so the bonds were never sold.)
Phase 1A of Poppleton would use $8.5 million in city bond money for upgrades to streets, sidewalks and the creation of several small parks. The city also agreed to pay La Cité $550,000 to remove and cap all utilities and utility poles at the Phase 1A site.
La Cité said that over a period of 20 years, it would construct 1,600 housing units and 52,000 square feet of commercial space in Poppleton.
Attempts to reach the company, which is headed by Daniel Bythewood Sr., a Long Island orthodontist, and his son, Daniel Jr., were unsuccessful.
“Almost No Experience”
During the Finance Board’s debate over TIF financing in April, board vice president Larry Silverstein expressed doubt that La Cité would ever complete the work.
Describing the company as having “almost no experience in this type of project,” Silverstein warned that the city was giving the developer the right to “control the fate of this neighborhood” for years to come.
The Housing Department did not respond to questions by The Brew seeking more details about the terms of the amended agreement with La Cité.
In the absence of development, the cleared blocks along Schroeder, Lexington and Fayette streets have been a battleground among suspected gangs fighting over drugs and turf.
Last Tuesday (July 7), two vans pulled over at Fayette and Schroeder. Gunmen emerged from the vehicles and exchanged fire. Two middle-aged men and a 53-year-old woman were killed and a fourth victim was wounded, according to Baltimore police.
In the early hours of May 25, police found Shaquil Hinton, 21, shot dead and his girlfriend left lying in a pool of blood a block away from last week’s triple murder.
The district is located south – and across the “Highway to Nowhere” spur of Route 40 – of the Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park neighborhoods that have been epicenters of recent violence in the wake of the April Uprising.