Sonia Eaddy was upbeat at the feel-good press event last July at which Mayor Brandon Scott announced that Baltimore would not be seizing her property for a New York developer’s long-stalled project and would not be demolishing the historic Sara Ann alley houses.
Eaddy, president of the Poppleton Now Community Association, thanked the mayor, the developer and city housing officials.
The event appeared to herald a big change, after years of demolition and displacement, from the policies that gave La Cité Development rights to 14 acres of Poppleton in 2005.
What would be next for the remaining residents, with nearly 10 of those acres still to be developed?
“Transparency, collaboration and equitable neighborhood development,” Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy promised four months ago, while Scott pledged “a reset.”
All of which made the residents’ discovery – via a news article – that La Cité had presented plans for a 200-unit senior apartment building in Poppleton to a city design panel all the more disappointing.
No one had informed Eaddy and her group.
“Are we being played? Are we being bamboozled?’” Eaddy said in an interview with The Brew. “It feels like they are purposely giving us some information, but not all information.”
Left out of the Loop
Eaddy noted that just two weeks before that October 27 meeting of the Urban Design & Architecture Advisory Panel (UDAAP), she had been in the same room with Kennedy and other housing and planning officials, attending a city-sponsored meeting about Poppleton.
At the “community conversation” in a neighborhood church, residents were encouraged to use colored markers to fill in maps indicating their preferences for development in the area.
When they began asking for updates and specifics on La Cité’s plans, Poppleton Now supporter Nicole King recalled, they got no answers.
“People want to be involved in projects in the neighborhood before it’s a done deal” – Nicole King.
“People made it very clear – they want to be involved in projects in the neighborhood before it’s a done deal,” King said. “So why is Poppleton Now being left out of the loop? Does this sound anything like a reset?”
King said that the city officials they had been working with must have known then – or at some point before the UDAAP meeting – that La Cité was bringing in plans for its apartment project for preliminary approval.
Asked if the housing department knew that La Cité was on the UDAAP agenda, spokeswoman Tammy Hawley said it did not.
Specifically, Commissioner Kennedy, who had chaired the October 13 community meeting, and Deputy Commissioner Kate Edwards, also in attendance, “were not aware,” Hawley said in a written statement.
“It is not uncommon for DHCD to be uninformed of UDAAP agenda items related to development projects,” she explained. “There is no direct step in that process with our agency.”
“However,” Hawley added, “we will be reaching out to request closer communication on development projects that are moving forward.”
“We were totally in the wrong,” we “should have talked to someone beforehand” – Planning Department director Chris Ryer.
Who then dropped the ball?
“We were totally in the wrong,” Planning Department director Chris Ryer said in an interview with The Brew yesterday.
The planner assigned to Poppleton and other area neighborhoods “should have talked to someone beforehand,” Ryer said, adding that the planner “didn’t even attend the UDAAP meeting.”
“He’s supposed to be the link to the department” for Poppleton residents, Ryer added.
UDAAP Chair Recuses
Projects do not get an up-or-down vote from UDAAP, whose role was shifted from “review” to “advisory” during the Pugh administration.
The panel does get a chance to comment on proposals, and developers are sometimes asked to make changes before they return for their second evaluation.
Members of the public may attend the meetings, but the public cannot testify at these (currently virtual) design reviews.
The hearings, nevertheless, carry weight. “Developers like to go to UDAAP before they go to places like Zoning Board where people are allowed to intervene,” said a community activist familiar with the process. “They go to Zoning Board and say, ‘We already have this development approved by UDAAP.’”
Eaddy and King said residents would have liked to have attended the UDAAP session and heard from La Cité’s design professional what is being planned.
The professional in this case was UDAAP chair Pavlina Ilieva, a principal at PI.KL Studio, who recused herself before making her presentation on behalf of La Cité.
The developer previously had disclosed plans to build apartments for seniors on a parcel just north of its Center/West apartments on Schroeder Street. But new details emerged at the meeting.
“La Cité Development LLC is planning a seven-story, 175,000-square-foot apartment building for older adults in Poppleton. . . with 53 parking spaces and two landscaped courtyards ” the Baltimore Business Journal story said.
“Future plans call for additional redevelopment in the community for a total of 2,853 rental units, both market rate and affordable,” the story also said.
The information was of interest to Poppleton residents, who have expressed concern about the height of any new buildings, their location in the community, the need for home ownership as well as rental development coming in for the project, and other issues.
“How did we miss that?”
After King expressed dismay on Twitter about the lack of notice of the UDAAP presentation, Ilieva reached out to a community member – but not to Eaddy – offering to make the same presentation that she gave to UDAAP.
Ilieva later apologized in an email, saying no one had given her Eaddy’s name. “I got a wide list of constituents that are involved in Poppleton from the Planning Department but that unfortunately did not include info on specific organizations and corresponding leadership,” she wrote to Eaddy.
“Why is everybody acting like they don’t know Sonia?” King asked. “The developer knows who she is. Chris Ryer knows who she is.”
In a letter (see below) sent to Commissioner Kennedy before the UDAAP flap, Poppleton Now members and supporters urged the city to listen carefully to the views and perspectives of the residents who are most directly impacted by the project.
Some residents say they are still hopeful that the Scott administration was serious about “a reset.”
Speaking for the housing department, Hawley said they are: “We look forward to our continued discussions with the entire community as we advance our work on future amendments to the Land Development and Disposition Agreement.”
“We received tremendous feedback from our recent community conversation and are presently compiling the information gathered to share with the residents of Poppleton and the developer,” she added.
But several activists, pointing to an awkward moment at the July press conference, say actions speak louder than words.
After Mayor Scott and other VIPs addressed the crowd and took questions from reporters and the event was about to end, it appeared Eaddy, who nearly lost her home to an eminent domain action, was not going to be asked to speak.
A staffer leaned over and whispered to Kennedy:
“What about Sonia?” (at about 17:50 in this CharmTV video.)
“Oh, my gosh,” Kennedy said, calling Eaddy up to the microphone. “I don’t know how we missed that.”
October 25 letter, signed by 20 Poppleton Now members and supporters, to Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy.