Residents win fight to save Poppleton properties from redevelopment project

Published on: July 18, 2022 5:17 PM EDT|Updated on: July 19, 2022 3:30 PM EDT

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After years of fighting a forceful takeover of their home by the city to make room for a major development, a family in West Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood will be able to stay put.

A group of 11 rare and historic rowhomes will also be protected from the sprawling, multiphase residential and retail development and transferred instead to a community developer.

City officials announced the new arrangement Monday, ending a yearslong conflict among city officials, developers and West Baltimore residents that challenged Baltimore’s use of eminent domain to overhaul neighborhoods at the expense of current residents.

A crowd gathered in Poppleton erupted into applause, cheers and praise for God when city officials made their plans public.

The predominantly Black neighborhood that borders the University of Maryland BioPark and the University of Maryland Medical Center sits just south of the controversial section of U.S. 40 known as the “Highway to Nowhere,” which was conceived as an extension of Interstate 70 in the 1970s and forced the displacement of hundreds of residents and businesses. Years later, the city entered into an agreement with New York-based developer La Cité to redevelop more than 13 acres in the neighborhood with a project dubbed Center\West that officials said would help curb vacancy and blight there.

The development has been labeled by community members as one of the most egregious examples of residential displacement in Baltimore. The few remaining residents in the area have fought to keep their homes.

Since the city struck the agreement with La Cité in 2006, the developer has built two apartment buildings. The agreement originally outlined four phases of development, all taking place by 2015, resulting in construction of 1,650 residential units and 100,000 square feet of commercial retail space. Per the agreement, city officials were tasked with using legal powers to acquire dozens of properties to sell to the developer.

The developer and city officials have cited the 2007-2008 housing crisis and the coronavirus pandemic as barriers to being further along in the development.

Still, with the city beholden to the original agreement, the community has since been rocked by mass displacement, historic building demolition and property seizure. Community leaders, activists and housing attorneys have demanded transparency from the developer about the project’s timeline and more intervention from city officials who are helping to subsidize the project with more than $58 million in public financing.

The developer values the total cost of the project at $800 million, according to its website. So far, the city has issued more than $10 million in bonds to help pay for the project as part of a tax increment financing deal, in which bonds are floated upfront before property taxes can pay off the debt later. City housing department spokesperson Tammy Hawley said a special tax would be levied on the developer if the tax increment is not sufficient to pay off the debt, making the city not liable for it.

At the center of the conflict are Sonia and Curtis Eaddy, who purchased their Poppleton home on North Carrolton Avenue in 1992 and had the property condemned by city officials in 2020 as part of the city’s effort to claim the home for redevelopment. The couple, married with children and many grandchildren who use the house as a gathering spot, appealed the city’s seizure of their home. They argue the developer hasn’t made clear how their land will be repurposed for “public use,” the standard governments must meet to seize property. They also helped organize other current and former neighborhood residents to mount a pressure campaign on the city to preserve more of the community.

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As city officials and housing advocates gathered for the announcement, Sonia Eaddy and Baltimore Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy embraced.

Speaking to the crowd, Eaddy called for a stop to the misuse of eminent domain across the state and thanked Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration for “finally hearing us, for finally seeing us, for finally giving us an opportunity to be at the table.”

In all, the fight to keep her home has spanned nearly two decades, she recounted.

“I just want to cry right now,” she said. “We lost, yes, in the courts. But it was the public who allowed this victory today.”

In an interview, Eaddy told The Baltimore Banner that family and friends have pressured her over the years to drop the case against the city and find a new place to live. She thanked God for giving her the strength to keep going and reiterated her commitment to the neighborhood.

Scott said it has long been a priority of the city to redevelop the Poppleton neighborhood, but he stressed the importance of finding a pathway forward that allows for the restoration of neighborhoods without leaving their longtime residents behind.

“Sometimes we just need to pause and think again about what’s good for our city and our residents. Because things change,” the first-term Democrat said. “Baltimore’s renaissance is at hand. But it cannot be a renaissance that displaces those who have been here through thick and thin. We’ve seen what happens in cities where that happens.”

Meanwhile, the Sarah Ann Street alley homes, 11 rare survivors of a type of “alley” rowhouse that commonly housed Black residents, also will be transferred from city ownership to Black Women Build-Baltimore, a development company that trains Black women in construction, carpentry and electrical skills. In April, Baltimore’s Commission for Historic and Architectural Preservation deemed those houses eligible for historic designation consideration, which could protect them from destruction. The city took possession of those homes last year and at the time said the developer would incorporate them into the project.

Now, Black Women Build-Baltimore will lead the renovation of those buildings, which will then be rehabbed and offered as for-sale housing.

Poppleton residents Yvonne and William Gunn, whose home a few blocks away has been in Yvonne Gunn’s family since 1925, celebrated the announcement of additional homeownership opportunities after years of watching their neighbors displaced.

They said they initially supported the redevelopment plan after years of disinvestment in the neighborhood. But as plans to provide housing for renters rather than homeowners emerged, they came to believe that the redevelopment would only bring a new set of challenges to longtime residents.

“This isn’t the Inner Harbor, this isn’t Canton, this isn’t Federal Hill, you know, this is a nice neighborhood that can give middle-class, working people the opportunity to buy a house,” William Gunn said.

John C. Murphy, a Baltimore attorney who represents Kenneth Currence, a 24-year resident of one of the Sarah Ann Street homes, said his client was originally asked to relocate from his house but will now be able to stay. The city will help him purchase the house, Murphy said.

“They should have never kicked the people out in the first place,” Murphy said. “Personally I think the whole Poppleton development was misguided, and they envisioned gentrification in an area that really was not an appropriate area for that, and it ignored the interest of the people living there.”

City officials and the developer, Dan Bythewood Jr., also said a new, affordable senior housing complex would be added to the site. Poe Homes, a public housing complex in Poppleton, also will be overhauled. Officials committed to keeping lines of communication open with residents and engaging with them more in the development.

“I do hope this is a reset on how the city does redevelopment, but there remains much to be seen,” said Nicole King, associate professor and chair of the department of American studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has helped mobilize residents against the development. “This was ... a stopgap: Stop replacing Black people, now. That has been accomplished, but the real work starts now.”

Dozens of letters of support for the Sarah Ann Street Historic District poured into the commission earlier this year, with all but two also expressing support for including the Eaddy property into the district’s boundaries. Baltimore CHAP officials moved to study whether the family’s embattled home could be moved into the historic district despite the agreement with La Cité.

An amended land disposition agreement between the city and the developer will go before the city’s board of estimates Wednesday. The historic preservation committee will review the proposed historic district next month, officials said.

King said Poppleton can now serve as a blueprint for other neighborhoods experiencing unwanted change and property seizure.

“This gives people hope: You can fight City Hall, you can fight done deals,” she said. “If you fight, you can win.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Emily Sullivan contributed to this article.

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