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Former Housing Commissioner’s Redevelopment Project Spitting Bricks

February 2, 2010

Bricks are heavy | Image by Photos by Edward Erison Jr.

A long-planned redevelopment project in Upper Fells Point hit what may be another obstacle last week when city housing officials posted an “emergency condemnation and demolition notice” on the building.

Yellow caution tape adorned the sidewalk near the front door of 1621 Bank St. on Thursday, Jan. 28. Several bricks and what looked like a piece of roofing paper were lying there as well. Neighbors were unsure what was happening, and a man who was working on the building was talking on his cell phone, trying to acquire a lift machine so he could survey the damage without entering the building.

“A whole row of bricks fell, I heard this crash,” says Victor Corbin, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association, adding that he called several city offices to report the problem several weeks ago. “I saw it was owned by the city of Baltimore. I was under the impression it was owned by Daniel Henson.”

For several years the building and adjacent parking lot at the corner of Broadway and Banks have been under the control of developer Antonio R. Womack and Henson, who was Baltimore Housing Commissioner in the 1990s. The pair at first proposed to redevelop the site into 30 “market rate” condominiums, plus retail shops. Last fall, citing “market conditions,” they changed their plan to include 33 rental apartments instead of the condos.

The pair call their company Fells Point Station, LLC, though a check of online state tax records finds no company by that name. At any rate, Henson and Womack’s proposal for the property beat others, and they have a contract to purchase the property for $584,300—a bit more than half of the property’s appraised value.

In 2008 the city agreed to lend the developers nearly $526,000 of the purchase price, with payments on the interest-only loan (at 4.7 percent) starting only after the project is completed. The pair have until next Jan. 23 to close the sale. The lowered purchase price was negotiated after it was discovered that the building needed extensive repairs, according to documents. “The purchase price . . . accounts for the deplorable condition of this property and the appraiser’s inability to conduct an interior inspection because of unsafe conditions,” according to a January 2008 memo from Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano to the Board of Estimates. Calls to Henson and Womack
‘s office were not returned. (See update below.)

In an e-mail, Corbin says he visited the site again this afternoon and found a small work crew emerging: “I was in front looking at the building and the door was open, then a gentleman walked out (3 men) and I [asked] how was the building inside [and] he told me it was not good the roof had collapsed in some areas.”

City preservation and housing officials did not respond to requests for information. A spokeswoman for Baltimore Housing declined to make the building’s file available, citing a provision of the Maryland Public Information Act that allows officials to take up to 30 days to respond to requests.

“It’s a shame,” Corbin says, “because this is another example of demolition by neglect.”

UPDATE—Feb. 2: Rod Womack just called (11 a.m.) to say he didn’t even know the building had been posted condemned until City Paper called him (last week). He corrects the (mis)impression created by previous press coverage and a raft of documents at City Hall: “Right now, it’s not our building,” Womack says. “It’s the city’s building. We won the RFP . . . but we don’t have control of the building.”

Womack says that the city should be “shoring up” the structure, which he signed an agreement to buy for half the appraised value because of those same structural problems. I asked if the city is making repairs.

“Not necessarily making repairs . . . but in shoring it up, that would kind of be the deal,” Womack says. “It’s a very long and unfortunately arduous process to transfer a property from the city, as you may know.”

At this point Womack says that he can say no more, as the situation is “complicated” and public discussion would be “premature.”

I ask him to confirm that it is not his company’s intention that the building be demolished.

“I can’t even answer that,” Womack replies. “Honestly, my company is really the minority company in the deal.” He suggests that Henson may be able to answer, quickly adding, “but I don’t know if anyone is talking about it. It’s premature.”

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