Between the Poe Homes public housing complex and the University of Maryland BioPark stand two new apartment buildings that will open soon and begin to make good on a huge and long-awaited revitalization plan for West Baltimore.
Officials with New York-based La Cite Development plan to cut the ribbon Nov. 2 on the 262 apartments, the first of about 30 buildings planned in Poppleton. The development is expected to include 3,000 apartments, retail shops, new roads and green spaces on 32 acres across Martin Luther King Boulevard from downtown.
“There’s a rooftop deck to watch the sunrise and another one to watch the sunset, depending on your mood,” said Dan Bythewood, president of La Cite, on a recent tour of the upscale apartments.
The Center\West development got underway in 2005 but stalled after the city purchased most of the hundreds of homes and businesses in its path. As the developers waited for the economy to improve, blight and crime persisted and remain an issue — in a shootout in the neighborhood last month a police officer was shot and the perpetrator killed.
The five- and six-story apartment buildings contrast sharply with much of the remaining housing stock, including the subsidized public housing and mostly vacant rowhouses. They are of new, modern construction. There are balconies with views of the city, a pool, stone countertops, a dog wash inside the parking garage and security. Outside there will be new lighted roads and streetscaping, parks and a soccer field is planned. If all goes according to plan, the next phase will include a grocery store and a movie theater.
Rents aren’t set, but 20 percent of the units will be subsidized and 80 percent will be market-rate. They aim to appeal to people working at the biopark and attending school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
Bythewood said he hopes to lure back some of the people displaced from the neighborhood. He said he was struck when he first came to Baltimore by how few lived in the community; about three in every four homes in the development footprint were vacant, a “staggering amount of devastation.”
But he doesn’t see the apartments as home only for university-related renters. He wants displaced residents to move in and find jobs in the area. To that end, he’s launching a construction training and networking program so people might work on Center\West and go on to work elsewhere.
“The diversity of the area is what drew us to the project,” he said. “We looked at the Eastern Seaboard from Washington, D.C., to Boston and this is the most amazing redevelopment opportunity, repositioning a whole neighborhood.”
The city approved a $56 million tax increment financing plan to support the project and has sold about $12 million in bonds for the first phase. TIFs are a somewhat controversial tool to fund infrastructure like roads, water and sewer improvements and parks. Future property taxes generated by the related development goes to repay the bonds.
La Cite has other financial partners on the project, which is expected to eventually cost up to $900 million, including Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Fund, BlackRock and Wells Fargo.
Tammy Hawley, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which is overseeing the TIF, said the project’s first phase represents a major step in what is seen as a long-term endeavor. Center\West’s planned four phases are expected to take up to 20 years.
“We view the Center\West project as a benefit to the community, providing units of affordable housing and including amenities that were not previously available,” Hawley said. “The project is now moving forward as expected and represents an $84 million investment into the community with just Phase 1.”
The department is finishing the land acquisition for Phase 2, which is 90 percent complete with the rest mostly tax sale foreclosures or city-owned public housing. Most of the property for Phases 3 and 4 has been acquired. Some properties will be condemned. Buildings will be demolished in the next four to six months.
There is other major development in neighboring communities, which often work together on economic development. The city paid to improve one block’s facades, upgrades to the Poe Homes are planned and private businesses are buying properties. War Horse Cities is working on a major housing project and redevelopment of a city-owned market in Hollins Market.
These efforts already have lured homebuyers, including Ashley Valis, who moved to West Baltimore as a student at the University of Maryland in 2004. When she got a job as executive director of the university’s of Maryland Office of Community Engagement she moved her family to Hollins Market just south of Poppleton.
This makes it an easy trip to work, which includes running a community engagement center in Poppleton that links the university with the neighborhood.
“There was all this work going on and my family wanted to be part of that,” Valis said. “There are a lot of strong assets here.”
She said the Center\West project is bringing more needed investment and she hopes people of all incomes have access to new housing and stores.
“For far too long the Poppleton neighborhood has been promised it’s coming and they are getting high-quality retail,” she said. “Time will tell what they are able to attract and if it’s the right balance. It could be tricky and I encourage the developer to keep talking to the community.”
Valis tapped a university “live near your work” grant program along with a dozen others for help buying a home in the area. Three more buyers are in the pipeline. The university has provided a total of $208,000.
Jane Shaab, executive director of the university BioPark, said more employees and students are likely to buy in the area or rent in Center\West once it opens because there are jobs nearby. About 45 companies and institutes have located in the neighborhood since the medical research park opened about a decade ago.
“There is a trend to live near where you work,” she said. “People want to walk — younger people especially. And there are great jobs opening up for them here.”
But some left in the neighborhood question whether there is room for them alongside university workers and students.
Sonia Eaddy, who grew up in Poppleton and moved back in 2004, is fighting the condemnation of her home for the Center\West project.
She’s not against investment and improvements the neighborhood needs. But the development is displacing people and businesses, long before new buildings are constructed, she said. Eaddy said she’d like the area residents who are left to have more input in Center\West, and specifically would like opportunities for people to buy houses.
So many rentals, as planned by the developer, means new residents would be transient, Eaddy said. They won’t likely be families that advocate for the community or push for park space or a new school. Modern multi-story rental apartment buildings also change the character of the brick rowhouse community.
“We want to see new plans,” she said. “We want to know what type of buildings they’re putting in and where. If we aren’t in agreement, can we negotiate? This process started so many years ago. Poppleton does want to get rid of the blight, but did others want to invest? We want to know why the city gave away so much land to one developer.”
Bythewood, the developer, said he’ll continue to attend neighborhood meetings and listen to residents.
For now, however, the market demands rentals. He plans to add about 400 units a year for the next seven years.