The Baltimore City Council last night called on the developers of the East Side redevelopment project to keep them better informed, questioning why it took the Maryland Daily Record’s recent five-day investigative series to alert them to significant delays and other issues of concern at the $1.8 billion project.
“We’re not always sure that we’re getting the straight story, and I hope we go a long way towards having transparency towards the end of the day,” said City Councilmember Carl Stokes, at the start of testimony by East Baltimore Development Inc. chairman Douglas Nelson.
Council chambers were packed for the evening hearing of the Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee, called for by Stokes. Sitting as chair of the committee, Stokes complained that EBDI failed to provide them with the financial and job data requested when the hearings were scheduled on Feb. 4.
Stokes’ district includes the 88-acre project that resulted in the razing of whole city blocks near Johns Hopkins Hospital with the promise that it would uplift the neighborhood through a mixed-use development featuring life science buildings, biotech start-ups, employment and educational programs for the community, among other features.
The Daily Record’s week-long series (“Too Big to Fail,” which debuted on January 30) slammed the decade-old $1.8 billion project for accepting massive public subsidies and displacing residents but failing to live up to its failing to its ambitious goals. EBDI responded with a lengthy rebuttal saying the series was “unfair” and “inaccurate” and failed to credit their accomplishments give the neighborhood’s social problems and recession’s devastating effects.
Nelson, former CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, acknowledged last night that mistakes had been made, but said also that EBDI officials were not the only ones who “did too little” in East Baltimore.
“We did not and could not avoid the inevitable trauma that comes with uplifting the community, nor did we avoid mistakes,” Nelson said, as part of EBDI’s presentation to the committee.
EBDI CEO Christopher Shea said that the original goals of EBDI remain unchanged and that the organization’s main conclusion following the Daily Record series was that they need to be “more transparent.”
“We have to learn to communicate better,” Nelson said. “To be more transparent in talking to all audiences about our finances. I promise you we will do that. We must also do better in our economic inclusion opportunities. We must do even better and we will do better.”
Yet even at the hearing, EBDI ran into trouble as they tried to present their status report to the committee.
Councilmembers questioned EBDI official Cheryl Washington sharply after she said that the project had created nearly 3,000 jobs in East Baltimore. Asked whether those jobs were permanent, she said about 1,700 of them were construction-related, and therefore temporary.
“This is part of the problem we have here,” Stokes fired back. “You have to tell us the truth and you only have one shot at it. It really has been difficult for us to get the true answer, and it is as if we have to drill and drill, and it’s just unfair.”
After the presentations, current and former residents from the Middle East neighborhood were on hand to provide testify about their experience during Phase I of the project.
Verona Blackstone, an aide in City Government, explained that while she was pleased to have been given a choice to select the house she eventually moved into, the level of financial uncertainty after moving had never gone away. Blackstone said she had seen an increase in her home equity, but that it came at the added cost of property taxes that ended up exceeding her mortgage causing her to declare bankruptcy.
“After all that has gone on these past three years, I’m afraid to think about what might happen in the next three years,” said Blackstone. “I’m not complaining, I’m just explaining what happened after I was rushed out.”
In addition to the relocation, many speakers complained about changes in the community and EBDI not listening to what they had to say. Community activist Donald Gresham was one of the most out-spoken.
“They have done a lot of good work, but what about the reality of what is happening to the people?” said Gresham. “If you don’t talk to the people in Middle East how are you going to fix any of the problems?”
Gresham also singled out Johns Hopkins Institutions, an EBDI partner, for being absent in most discussions, saying that “it’s all about Hopkins in this,” but that they were typically nowhere to be found. Councilman Stokes also commented that he was disappointed that no representatives from Hopkins had accompanied Nelson and Shea at the hearing.
Both EBDI speakers said they would strive to improve relations with residents, and stressed that the success of the project depended on being “guided by the community.”
“It’s not that EBDI is too big to fail,” said Nelson, “EBDI is too important to Baltimore to fail.”