As residents of Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park prepare to launch a new effort to revitalize their community, one area leader says he’s afraid the Scott administration is making decisions that will undermine the initiative before it even gets underway.
A $60,000 Community Catalyst Grant was awarded to guide future redevelopment of the two West Baltimore neighborhoods that were the center of protests triggered by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.
Expected to start this spring, the community-led planning effort represents an attempt to build on the $100 million redevelopment push led by James Rouse’s Enterprise Foundation when Kurt Schmoke was mayor in the 1990s.
One of first questions the community wants to answer: What should happen to the former Pinderhughes school site, located on two city blocks just west of Pennsylvania Avenue?
The building has been used on and off as a homeless shelter, but the community has been told that was just temporary.
Community leaders say they don’t want the school to become a permanent shelter and are counting on the planning effort to help identify viable alternative uses that would help spark revitalization of the surrounding area.
But even before the planning effort gets started, the Scott administration has sent signals that it has already decided what to do with the Pinderhughes property.
Money on the Table
Members of the Planning Commission were briefed last month about funding requests for proposed capital improvement projects in fiscal 2022, and the Pinderhughes property was part of the discussion.
The commissioners were told that the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services is requesting $4 million to renovate buildings to accommodate and serve individuals experiencing homelessness. The budget item was labeled “MOHS Shelter Improvements.”
Planner Kristen Ahearn did not give a breakdown of where the money would be spent, but one of the buildings mentioned as a candidate for shelter funds was the Pinderhughes property.
Before it was closed last May, more than 130 women and children were housed in the former school, according to Housing Our Neighbors, an advocacy group.
Many of the women and children were subsequently placed in motel rooms to reduce the transmission of the Covid-19 virus among a vulnerable population.
“Significant community objection”
The funding request for shelter improvements caught the attention of Eric Stephenson, a planning commissioner who lives near the former school and heads the Lafayette Square Community Development Corp.
“About the $4 million for shelters, you specifically mentioned the Pinderhughes temporary shelter,” Stephenson said to Ahearn.
“There happens to be significant community objection to that shelter, and we continue to call it ‘temporary’ and continue to see additional investments in so-called temporary shelters. So I would just encourage whoever is pushing that forward maybe to do some additional community engagement around that subject.”
Planning Director Chris Ryer responded to Stephenson, saying the mayor’s funding request for shelters was not necessarily meant for the Pinderhughes property, despite a photo of the building shown to the commission.
According to Ahearn, the images shown to the commission were meant to be illustrative of sites where funding has been requested or where funds have gone in the past – not necessarily sites that will get the planning department’s funding recommendations for fiscal 2022.
The issue was further clouded by an item on the Board of Estimates agenda on January 13, in which the Department of General Services requested and received $575,812.38 to fund design services for a project called “Pinderhughes School Renovations.”
City agencies won’t say what the Pinderhughes building will be used for.
John Brunnett, a principal of Gant Brunnett, did not respond to requests for information about the Pinderhughes project or how the firm’s expertise would be put to use.
Brian Lasan, communications manager for DGS, forwarded a request for information about the Pinderhughes building to Mayor Scott’s spokesperson, Stefanie Mavronis.
Mavronis responded by sending a message from Tisha Edwards, interim director of MOHS.
“Standard part of due diligence”
“BOE authorization was provided so that the Department of General Services had the authorization to procure architectural designs for Pinderhughes as a standard part of our due diligence to redesign the building to meet CDC guidelines,” Edwards said, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As such, the request to work with an architecture firm was submitted for BOE approval for the purpose of developing renderings,” she continued. “The Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services remains focused on ensuring congregate shelter settings are safe in accordance with CDC guidelines and that as many people as possible are moved into more permanent housing.”
In those 90 words, Edwards talked about “developing renderings” and working to “meet CDC guidelines” with the $575,812.38. But she never came out and said what the mayor wants the Pinderhughes building to be used for.
The closest Edwards came to stating that the building was being improved for continued use as a homeless shelter was the part about “ensuring congregate shelter settings are safe in accordance with CDC guidelines.”
Who’s Listening to Us?
The future use of the property is very important to Sandtown and Harlem Park for three reasons, Stephenson said:
• First, “it’s right at the center of what could be a transit-oriented development by the Upton subway station.”
• Second, “the fact that it used to be a school and is now closed, the symbolism of that is just horrible and part of a trend that we’re trying to reverse.”
* Third, “the future use of the building is definitely going to be one of the focuses of our plan, which is why we don’t want to see money wasted for something that’s going to be a temporary use and not a long-term use.”
By speaking up, he said, he was hoping to get the mayor’s office to hold off on any additional spending that would further solidify the property’s use as a homeless shelter, so the community can move ahead with its comprehensive planning effort and have a say in what happens there.
Stephenson said he doesn’t blame Scott for past decisions involving the Pinderhughes property because he is new to the mayor’s office.
But he said he is concerned that no one from any city agency had been in touch with Sandtown or Harlem Park residents about the plan to spend more than half a million dollars on the Pinderhughes school.
“We don’t let private developers get to this stage without doing community engagement,” he said. “So why is the city doing that?”
“We don’t let private developers get to this stage without doing community engagement. So why is the city doing that?” – Eric Stephenson.
By pouring money into the Pinderhughes property before having an agreed-upon long-range plan, the city would be putting the community in a Catch-22 situation, he said.
This isn’t the first time city officials have shown an interest in making Sandtown-Winchester a center for homeless services, Stephenson pointed out.
Last summer, then-7th District Councilman Leon Pickett III organized a “homeless resource festival” on the Pinderhughes property without notifying the community.
“They literally bused homeless people from other parts of the city to get a haircut,” he said. “You can say it’s a temporary use or it’s for emergencies. But then you go and have a homeless festival?”