Competing Plans For Improvement In East Baltimore Midway
Baltimore residents and city leaders have called for more investments in struggling inner city communities, especially since the unrest last spring. But what happens when there are competing plans for improvement? In East Baltimore Midway, an established urban farm is at odds with a young architect-turned developer.
Just one turn off of Greenmount Avenue, amidst city blocks peppered with vacant row homes sits one of East Baltimore Midway's prized locations: The Boone Street Farm. Cheryl Carmona and Patrick Baron are the farm's managers, and have been growing tomatoes, okra, squash and other vegetables since 2010. They acquired their lots through a lease with the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development that grants applicants the use of city-owned lots for things like urban farming.
The terms to their agreement with the city, as Baron understood them, were simple, that your lease would be renewed "provided you were putting it toward some sort of improvement."
The part of the lease Baron is referring to actually states "the community managed open space must have a strong function in at least one community use, such as active or passive recreation, food production, education, visual relief from the built environment or gathering space for formal or informal community gatherings." Boone Street Farm has done all of these things.
A different part of the lease Baron must have missed is a provision that warns licensees they might have to move if a buyer emerges.
It says, "The city encourages licensees to consider the possibility of lost investment in the event a purchaser of the lot is found."
Until this year, no purchasers showed interest in the lots. But now, Enter, TamirEzzat, an architect from Howard County, MD says he wants to turn blighted urban neighborhoods back into livable communities. Ezzat's interest in sustainable living and green space drew him to the farm, which he believed would be a key element in stabilizing the community and pushing forward any development around it.
During his trips to the neighborhood, Ezzat says he appreciated how important the farm is to the community. He said two teenagers approached him and said "There's a garden there. Don't mess up the garden."
With or without new houses, the farm has been a stabilizing addition to East Baltimore Midway. Rosa Wilson has lived in the same house in Midway East for 11 years. "Since the farm been there," she says, "there ain’t been no drug dealing on the block, there’s less trash. It's just been more safer, I believe."
She works part time with "The Garden Club," Boone Streets' after school program with students from Cecil Elementary School. Her nine-year-old son Roderick is a student at Cecil Elementary, and is a member of the Garden Club. Rosa says Roderick's been given opportunities that she didn’t have until she was in her thirties. "Since I started helping at the farm I’ve eaten things I didn’t know anything about. I'd never eaten okra before."
Recognizing the good the farm has done for the community, Ezzat and his partners approached the city about developing a completely vacant block to the south of the Boone Street Farm that would leave the farm intact. The city directed him back to the farm's lots because the vacant block he inquired about was not all owned by the city.
Confident that he could strike a partnership with the farm, Ezzat approached Carmona and Baron with drawings that included the new homes he would build on part of their land while leaving the farm’s other lots untouched.
However, they could not reach an agreement. While the lots Ezzat has interest in represent only about 25% of the physical space Boone Street Farm operates on, the role they play are critical. Of the farm’s three small plots of land, it’s the only one with access to water.
City Councilman, Carl Stokes, recognizes both the services the Farm has provided for the community and the opportunity investment in the community can bring. He think that a conversation between Ezzat, Boone Street Farm and The Housing Department should occur. The says the city should commit to the farm, even if it has to move. He said, "I think it’s somewhat unfair to not have a secondary place for [Boone Street Farm] to continue without interrruption."
However, Cheryl Carmona from Boone Street Farms said that it would take years to turn that amount of space back into productive land. Having to concede to taking a secondary location in itself could pose an insurmountable interruption to the farm’s mission.
Rosa Wilson is skeptical that the housing would be affordable, and is afraid it would only push out the current residents of Midway East. Ezzat says that these fears about the impact of development are common, although he finds them to be unfounded. He says "There's a stigma against development that it tears neighborhoods apart. How do you progress then? How do you do any kind of development that shows that people care?"
The City now faces a question: which kind of community investment is more valuable? Since their initial meetings, Ezzat placed a bid for the lots. Carmona and Baron were notified on November 12 and given two weeks to make a counter offer. Their bid was submitted the day before Thanksgiving. The Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development says it hasn’t made an award of sale. Officials are reviewing the bids to determine which would be best for the community.
This report was updated on December 17th to include corrections.