This week, Baltimore City said it was unwilling to wait any longer on the redevelopment that New York developer La Cité has been promising for almost 20 years in West Baltimore’s Poppleton neighborhood.

In all that time, La Cité has completed only one project, a 252-unit apartment complex, on the up to 14 acres of land it was supposed to redevelop. A long-promised grocery store hasn’t materialized, nor has the pledge to reinstall a sense of community to a majority-Black neighborhood in distress.

The Baltimore Banner reported that La Cité had missed a deadline last month to show it had the financing to move forward on a residential building for seniors. The developer said it cannot secure financing until the city arranges for a tax incentive funding package. The firm has not responded to a request for an interview.

Homes on 1100 block of Sarah Ann Street in Baltimore on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)
The Center\West apartment building in Poppleton developed by La Cité is part of a broader, but stalled, plan to revive the neighborhood. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy on Monday notified the company that it is terminating their agreement for projects beyond the senior building. The move comes after hundreds of Poppleton residents were displaced, blocks of buildings were razed and millions of dollars in government money were spent.

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Now, the neighbors and community leaders who remain want a say in what happens next.

‘There’s a lack of trust’

“People have been fighting for 20 years, and it feels like they have been fighting against their own government,” said Pastor Brenda White, who has led the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Poppleton in recent years. “I know the work that people have put in to preserve their legacy, their heritage.”

She said she is glad to see Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration begin to disentangle from La Cité. The deal was struck under then-Mayor Martin O’Malley and spanned the administrations of six mayors.

“So many families have had to move away, and they haven’t seen progress,” she said. “People have been told, ‘This is coming and this is coming.’ They haven’t seen it. And so there’s a lack of trust.”

Pastor Brenda White poses for a portrait inside her church, Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Poppleton, on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Going forward, she said she hopes the city will involve the community more deeply. And she said the church’s neighbors weren’t keen on the style La Cité had chosen.

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“It’s not that the community is against development. It’s how it’s done. They want houses. They want families to live here,” she said. “They don’t want high-rise. They want houses that blend into the history of the community.”

Still, White pointed to a positive: A few years ago, with help from several local organizations, Poppleton got a pollinator garden on some of its empty land.

When it blooms, White said, “the residents say, the people say, ‘It looks like somebody cares.’”

Pastor Brenda White points to the community garden outside Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Poppleton on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

‘Forced to be in a state of stagnation’

“This community has been traumatized,” said Tisha Guthrie, the secretary for the Poppleton Now Community Association, pointing out the “Highway to Nowhere” is nearby and Poppleton is one of many parts of West Baltimore where long, systemic disadvantages have not been redressed.

Guthrie said she is a lifelong Baltimore resident and moved to Poppleton in 2021.

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“From the very beginning, the process seemed to be lacking community involvement,” she said. “And the very fact that a developer who had never done any project at this scale ... and him being offered this project, it speaks volumes about how the city values communities like Poppleton and West Baltimore.”

La Cité's president, Dan Bythewood, approached the city in the early 2000s with a plan to transform the neighborhood, which is just a few minutes west of downtown.

After being targeted for redevelopment with little community input, Guthrie said, Poppleton is “being forced to be in a state of stagnation.”

“The neighbors talk about how embarrassing it is to have family and friends come into their community — and their homes, and see the plots of land that are in disrepair,” she said.

Tisha Guthrie, secretary for the Poppleton Now Community Association, poses for a portrait outside her home in Poppleton on Tuesday, June 4, 2024. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

She wants to see the city partner with developers who “have the heart and have the vision to be a part of community, and not say you’re creating a community, which is what we are coming out of, hopefully.”

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And she said she wants her young neighbors to have a bigger say.

Her dream for Poppleton: an urban farm that would partner with a local grocer. Poppleton residents have been hearing since 2021 that a grocery store is coming “soon.”

She noted she still carries the reusable grocery bag from the first grocer that committed to the Poppleton project.

“He was excited,” she said. “I don’t know what happened with that.”

Photo of Sonia Eaddy talking to Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy and Deputy Mayor Ted Carter during a tour of Poppleton.
Sonia Eaddy addresses a crowd at a "Save Our Block" rally in July 2021. (Courtesy of Charles Cohen)

For West Baltimore native Sonia Eaddy, the city’s termination of its contract with La Cité brought an immediate sense of relief.

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“I’ve been on a high,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Whew.’”

She parlayed her years of fighting what she sees as the developer’s empty promises into a long-shot bid to unseat the district’s incumbent city councilman, John Bullock. She hoped the organizing skills she had mastered during her successful fight to save her home from the developer’s grasp would propel her to an unlikely victory.

She placed second in a four-way race for the seat in the primary election last month.

Although she said she in encouraged by the city’s action this week, she also said it’s too soon for a victory lap. The community has been down this road before, she noted. About a decade ago the city lost a lawsuit when it attempted to end its contract with La Cité.

“I’m wanting to get a little more understanding of what this means,” Eaddy said, “so that we don’t get all excited and then find out, no, it doesn’t mean ‘this.’”