Its fate long determined by a developer and City Hall, Poppleton floats its own plans
After meeting with Baltimore’s housing commissioner, residents aren’t sure whether help is on the way or it’s more demolition, disinvestment and bureaucratic drift.
Above: At a meeting at Allen AME Church in Poppleton, Tisha Guthrie listens as resident Yvonne Gunn questions Baltimore city housing officials. (Fern Shen)
Last summer, the residents of Poppleton scored a victory when Mayor Brandon Scott backed down on plans, as part of a New York company’s failed development project, to seize a longtime resident’s house and demolish alley house inhabited by Black families since the Civil War.
Emboldened by Scott’s promised “reset,” they met for months to devise plans and priorities, hoping to have a say in rebuilding a neighborhood decimated by demolition and neglect.
Last week, at a meeting in a church basement, they presented their “vision map of possibilities” before an audience that included Scott’s housing commissioner, Alice Kennedy.
The residents listed 10 priorities, including home ownership opportunities, historic preservation, job opportunities and bringing back legacy residents who had been displaced.
And then they showed detailed maps of what they wanted put back in the now-vacant lots – an area for single-family houses here, denser “mixed use” there, and so on.
Kennedy said she supports them enthusiastically as they pursue their ideas.
“The city wants to see as much home-ownership opportunity, as much affordable home-ownership opportunity, as much affordable rental and as much market-rate rental,” she said.
The administration’s end goals are “to support vibrant and thriving competition and bring back that architectural character and all the things that were there.”
But Kennedy’s sweeping assurances did not reassure Yvonne Gunn, who has watched the community stagnate as she worked for years to restore and renovate her house on West Fayette Street, which has been in her family since 1925.
“I’m 75,” she said. “At the rate it’s going, I will be in a nursing home by the time it’s finished, or the next step.”
“We were ignored”
Addressing the roughly 40 people assembled at the Allen AME Church on West Lexington Street, Poppleton Now President Sonia Eaddy said residents “have been fighting for well over a decade” to get the city to review its agreement with La Cité Development.
“We felt it was outdated, and we were ignored throughout the planning process.”
Eaddy, Gunn and other community leaders have been vocal about the lack of progress since the New York developer was given rights to nearly 14 acres of land under a 2005 Land Development and Disposition Agreement (LDDA).
La Cité Development President Daniel Bythewood Jr. says he’ll build 1,800 new units on the cleared land, down from the company’s original promise of 3,000 units.
But so far, he has completed just two apartment buildings – out of 30 projects planned – despite $58 million in approved tax increment (TIF) public financing.
As Gunn sees it, the community’s vision plan stands little chance of success as long as La Cité remains involved.
“We want to bring in developers, capable developers, other than the one that exists,” she said. “We’ve already waited far too long. How can that work?”
“A good question,” Kennedy said. “I don’t have an exact answer.” The city “has a legally binding agreement with a developer under the LDDA that has certain terms associated with that. And any type of negotiation that strays from what is in the LDDA . . . is not easy.”
But doesn’t the developer have legally binding timelines to get the work done, Gunn asked.
Yes, Kennedy replied, but “when the city tried to hold the developer accountable for timelines, we went to court and we lost.”
POPPLETON NOW’S 10 GOALS:
- Establish a positive and identifiable image for the neighborhood.
- Value historical and architectural preservation.
- Ensure home ownership opportunities for diverse economic groups.
- Develop residential, neighborhood business, institutional and public land uses.
- Create employment opportunities for community residents.
- Revitalize existing businesses, bring in new community-identified ones.
- Bring about physical improvements.
- Bring back displaced residents.
- Increase affordable housing opportunities.
- Create opportunities for residents to age in place.
Limits of “the Reset”
City officials had come to the meeting with a positive message.
Kennedy repeatedly pledged her support for the residents and her commitment to future homeownership and not just apartments (“I want to be 100% clear about that”).
She further touted an array of government programs that offer qualifying individuals financial assistance to buy or renovate a house.
“I got your back!” she assured Angela Banks, a displaced Poppleton resident who said she is looking to finance a house purchase.
(Banks is the named complainant in a legal action asking federal officials to investigate whether the city’s redevelopment policies in Poppleton perpetuated racial segregation and violated fair housing laws by disproportionately displacing Black and low-income residents.)
“We’ll get you connected with the right people to help close that gap,”Kennedy told Banks, providing her with her email address.
But the back-and-forth also exposed the many roadblocks remaining for residents and the limits of the administration’s pledge of transparency and “a reset.”
“Things are being discussed, and secondhand information is being gotten, and the collaboration is not taking place,” resident Tisha Guthrie said. “It really does make for a contentious relationship.”
Residents want “a seat at the table,” but Kennedy made clear that would not always be possible.
Responding to several who said residents want “a seat at the table” during any negotiations with la Cité, Kennedy made clear that would not always be possible.
“It is our job to be the ones to stand up to do those negotiations, to have that tough conversation,” she said. “To have us as the city trying to figure out what we would, or would not be able to do, and then meet with you all.”
Could other developers be brought in? That could happen, Kennedy said, but only if those companies negotiate directly with La Cité.
Community leaders were surprised to learn that’s what happened with the small, Baltimore-based company Scott announced last summer would be renovating the once-threatened Sarah Ann alley houses.
“The city wasn’t party to the final agreement between Black Women Build and the developer,” Kennedy told them.
Another potential problem residents are just beginning to research: the existence of Planned Unit Development(PUD) legislation approved by the City Council that could require denser development than residents want.
The PUD “may not allow for some of the things being suggested here,” Kennedy warned them.
A Spring Garden
The meeting was “a good start,” Poppleton Now planning committee member Nicole King said afterwards. But Kennedy’s reluctance to commit to concrete steps was discouraging.
“People are frustrated that this is taking so long, and getting bombs from the city isn’t helping,” she said, pointing to the lingering impression that legal and bureaucratic entanglements will continue to stand in the way of the community’s dream.
“The city has the power not only to say the nice things, but to do them,” King said. “That’s their job, and this shouldn’t be so hard.”
“People are frustrated that this is taking so long, and getting bombs from the city isn’t helping” – Nicole King, Poppleton Now.
Two days later, the mood outside of Allen AME Church was buoyant. It was spring planting day at its Pathway Forward community garden.
Valerie Thomas was directing the first of 70 volunteers who came to restart the vegetable garden, plant apple, plum and pear trees and generally usher in the 2023 growing season.
The 68-year-old Thomas, who had attended Thursday’s meeting, said she was glad people had come together so that some version of their community might rise again.
“The people who stayed despite the fact that everything was falling apart. It’s these people that need help from the city,” said Thomas, who was born and raised in Poppleton.
“We are the ones who are invested in this place. We’ve been here through everything.”
“I know it can”
Spying a new pile of construction trash that was dumped nearby, Thomas dashed off to snap a photo and report it. (Some community members have dragged logs into the alleyways that dumpers’ trucks use, hoping to thwart them.)
But first she introduced J. Smith, a trustee and lifelong Allen church member who had come with her one-year-old.
There was much to do on Saturday morning with rain in the forecast. There were balled-up pear and apple trees to put in the ground, vegetable planting boxes to be repaired, volunteers to direct.
All this was happening on a parcel that, before demolition and depopulation, was filled with occupied houses.
“There used to be kids and families here, and every Saturday the local rec center [now closed and vandalized but on the drawing board for reopening] was full,” she said. “It really stinks what’s happened.”
Asked if Poppleton can come back, she answered firmly, “I know it can.”
“It will take time. I mean, it took 30 years to get this way,” she said, reflecting that maybe her children will get to see the results of their elders’ organizing.
“They might be able to say, ‘This is why we can go to the swimming pool. This is why we can pick fruit from the trees.’”
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