The group of East Baltimore elected officials threatening to derail the massive, $1.6 billion redevelopment project around
Late last month, the group held a news conference outside the offices ofEast Baltimore Development Inc., the nonprofit entity coordinating the commercial developers and contractors on the project, to protest the agency's failure to come through with the promised benefits. Among other things, the group accused
All those benefits were supposed to go to local residents as part of the redevelopment project in an area where unemployment is two to three times higher than in the city as a whole and up to four times the national average. The lawmakers, who included the area's City Council members and state legislators, have vowed to block approval of zoning and building permits and other legislation needed to move the project forward until they have assurances that EBDI and its partners are living up to a 2002 agreement they signed with the city committing themselves to bring tangible benefits to the community and its residents.
There's little doubt that over the years the project hasn't delivered everything it promised, and the frustration of community residents and lawmakers over the pace of redevelopment is entirely understandable. But that doesn't mean the intentions of those involved in the redevelopment effort were not genuine.
Recently, the recession and collapse of the housing and financial markets have drastically changed the economic conditions the development partners envisioned when the project began. Moreover, the agreement that lawmakers point to as providing for the inclusion of minority workers and contractors in the redevelopment process was reached before EBDI was formally incorporated as nonprofit entity. For that reason, many of the funding sources originally envisioned to provide for local manpower development and investment in neighborhood improvements have had to be adjusted, and it's not clear how much, if any, money has been set aside for those purposes. The 2002 commitments were a blueprint for how the project's sponsors intended to proceed, but its mechanisms clearly are in need of revision if they are to satisfy today's needs.
That doesn't mean they should be watered down or scrapped, however. The basic idea of urban redevelopment carried out in a way that both benefits community residents and brings new businesses, jobs and opportunities to the area is a good one, and the major stakeholders that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Middle East — John Hopkins, theAnnie E. Casey Foundationand the Weinberg Foundation — are to be commended for standing behind the effort despite the problems that have come up along the way. In particular, the effort to accelerate construction of a new school to serve the area — the first new school built in East Baltimore in more than 25 years — should help reassure residents that the redevelopment project is continuing in good faith.
Maryland's elected officials, both city and state, have also done their part, and they must continue to do so to support what still has the potential to be a national model for revitalizing distressed inner-city communities. That requires keeping the lines of communication open with everyone involved in the project and working to iron out differences in a way that ultimately benefits residents, contractors, business owners and — yes — even developers. Nothing can be accomplished unless they all work together.
That's why we hope the lawmakers representing Middle East can find a way of satisfying their concerns about equity in housing and job opportunities for local residents without threatening to torpedo the whole project before it fairly gets off the ground. For one, the first victims of such a strategy would be the minority contractors and workers scheduled to begin construction soon on the residential tower, mixed-use retail/parking garage complex and the new school that have already received approval and financing under the project.