Living in West Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood has been heartbreaking for residents – the city taking their homes by eminent domain for a project that’s dragged on for a decade, spawning more vacant weedy lots than new buildings.
Fighting back against what they viewed as a textbook case of failed development, residents and their allies made signs and fliers, held rallies, researched land records and wrangled doggedly with city officials to preserve what’s left of a community inhabited by Black families since the Civil War.
Today, to their surprise and delight, they are scheduled to stand side-by-side with Mayor Brandon Scott, Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy and La Cité Development President Daniel Bythewood Jr. for an announcement that they are basically getting what they wanted.
Sonia and Curtis Eaddy, who fought for 18 years to keep their house at 319 North Carrollton Avenue, will be able to keep it.
And the 1100 block of Sarah Ann Street – the row of rainbow-colored alley houses the city acquired for the La Cité project – will instead go to Black Women Build Baltimore (BWBB).
The nonprofit is to rehab the 11 historic rowhouses, which residents and preservationists feared would be demolished, and sell them at an affordable price, giving former tenants the right of first refusal.
“My hands went over my face and I cried,” said Sonia Eaddy, recalling the moment she heard the news in an interview with The Brew.
Asked what made the city back down at the 11lth hour – she had lost her legal battle to halt condemnation, which was pending on appeal – Eaddy cited public pressure ramping up after last year’s Save Our Block campaign.
“We had a new mayor and he was starting to look bad,” she said. “This had been behind the scenes for years, but people were now watching.”
“I’m happy the little guy won” – Shelley Halstead, founder of Black Women Build Baltimore.
UMBC professor Nicole King, who has been supporting the residents in their efforts, agreed.
“They say you can’t fight City Hall, but they did and actually succeeded. Now the city is putting its money where its mouth is,” King said.
“Sonia was relentless, and the community stood up,” she continued. “They were not going to let the city roll over them.”
Housing Commissioner Kennedy said the Scott administration was determined to change the Poppleton narrative.
It took some “strong negotiations with the developer over the last eight weeks,” she said, to get the city out from under obligations locked in nearly 20 years ago.
“We cannot totally erase the past and go back hundreds of years and undo the negative impact of racist policies, but we realized it was important to us to go into neighborhoods and do whatever we can do now that sets the stage for the equitable development we want,” Kennedy told The Brew.
Kennedy said the city changed course on Poppleton because of the strong push from the community (“we knew they had frustrations”), a sense of urgency (“my concern was the buildings not sit longer and deteriorate”) and because her agency’s policy priorities have evolved.
“Transparency, collaboration, equitable neighborhood development – how we look at things in 2022 vs. 2014 or before is very different,” Kennedy said.
Shelley Halstead, BWBB’s founder and executive director, had a simpler take-away:
“I’m happy the little guy won.”
In an emailed statement, Bythewood had a brief response: “I am happy with the outcome we have all achieved through working with the Administration, our neighbors and the La Cité team to construct a win for all.”
In an interview with The Brew, Kennedy spelled out the details of the agreements reached with the company that are to be presented to the Board of Estimates on Wednesday.
The city is returning 319 and 321 North Carrollton to the Eaddys, paying La Cité $260,000 to compensate for pre-development costs. In return, the N.Y.-based company will relinquish its rights to develop the parcels.
The city solicitor’s office will ask the court to vacate the decision favoring the city in the Eaddys’ legal challenge of the condemnation, so that the properties can be returned to the couple.
In a separate agreement, Baltimore is selling the 11 Sarah Ann properties to BWBB for $1 each and assigning the nonprofit as their new developer.
The group is a homeownership and wealth-building initiative that trains Black women in carpentry, electrical, and plumbing while restoring vacant and deteriorated houses.
Under the agreement, the group is to pay the developer $2,000 for each of the properties, then stabilize them and offer them for sale.
In a video produced last year about the Sarah Ann alley houses, Baltimore Heritage officials said they were built in 1870. (YouTube)
Rehabbing Small Spaces
Last year, Halstead said, she approached Organize Poppleton and the city to offer residents her group’s services. Asked why she reached out, she replied “because it just wasn’t right, what was happening to them.”
Now she’s looking forward to the challenge of making a livable space out of such diminutive structures: they’re 500 square feet and measure 10 feet wide by 25 feet deep.
She plans to start by gutting the interiors and getting the gas meters out of the living rooms, where they take up valuable space.
“Maybe we’ll do mini-splits [ductless air conditioning units]. Maybe do in-floor heating – these are slab-on-grade,” she mused.
“Or maybe it’s going to mean, in the kitchen, putting in a bench at the table that opens up and you can put storage in it,” she continued. “I’m thinking of it almost like a boat, with lots of built-in shelves.”
At the end of the process, she anticipates a sale price of under $100,000 for buyers – sweetened further with whatever homeownership tax credits can be applied.
Will the houses keep their rainbow colors? Yes, if possible, as long as doing so doesn’t disqualify the properties from historic preservation tax credits.
“That’s the first thing everybody asks about,” she explained.
What will the rest of the area be like in a couple of years, when the Sarah Ann houses are expected to be completed?
Will the former tenants, displaced by the city and relocated, be able to purchase them and return?
What will happen to the nearly 10 acres remaining to be developed under La Cité’s Land Development and Disposition Agreement (LDDA) with the city? Will there be more demolition ?
There are an additional nine properties to come down in Poppleton and an industrial space that will be partially demolished and partially stabilized, according to HCD spokeswoman Tammy Hawley.
Asked to respond in detail to residents’ description of his project as “failed” and “stalled” and what his vision is for its future, Bythewood had only this to say:
“We’ve made progress with the development, have brought in new residents, are developing a new grocery, and I look forward to the future development of a Class A senior building,” he wrote.
So far the company has only completed the Center/West apartments on Schroeder Street despite $58 million in approved tax increment (TIF) public financing.
The two structures – out of the 30 buildings originally envisioned – are a far cry from the plans laid out when the company was given rights to develop nearly 14 acres in Poppleton in 2005.
Despite the lack of progress, the city spent millions of dollars demolishing hundreds of rowhouses in the area.
As a result, Poppleton is now a patchwork of cleared land and dilapidated rowhouses west of Fremont Avenue and north of the University of Maryland BioPark.
A Promised Seat
Kennedy said La Cité is currently planning senior affordable housing on a lot immediately north of Center/West, making use of its location in a federal Opportunity Zone to attract investors.
(Bythewood said the his company has identified an investor and is preparing to take its plans before the city’s architectural review panel.)
Kennedy also said that negotiations with the developer are continuing on another amendment to the LDDA,.
She promised that residents “will have a seat at the table” in the conversation about the future mix of housing types in Poppleton.
Eaddy said she and other community members are pushing against high-rise apartments and toward owner-occupied housing. Speaking with The Brew, Kennedy signaled she has heard them.
“It was important to put home ownership back on the table,” she said.
Asked if City Hall could fulfill these promises after years of bad blood and mistrust, Kennedy said she hoped so.
“We went into conversations with the developers intensely in hopes we could really re-set those relationships with La Cité and with the community.”