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Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

Johnston Square Project Begins Construction of New Library

By meerna Jul11,2024
Johnston Square Project Begins Construction of New Library

The Johnston Square neighborhood in East Baltimore has long been held up by local officials as an example of how the city can use its glut of vacant homes.

Once largely neglected and devoid of new investment, the community has seen many of its homes — and its lifeblood — fall into disrepair over the years. But over the past decade, vacancy rates have fallen, homeowners have moved in, and neighbors say property values ​​have gone up.

Developer ReBUILD Metro is revitalizing the neighborhood one block at a time, pouring renovated homes, street improvements, and community amenities into the community. The effort has required a massive investment — nearly $100 million has been raised to date — and partnerships with longtime residents to help get the job done.

It’s a wildly complex undertaking, but the result is a growing and changing community a few blocks from Johns Hopkins Hospital and Penn Station. Neighborhood leaders, public officials and developers broke ground Wednesday on a residential building that will house a new Enoch Pratt Free Library on the ground floor — the system’s first new library in 15 years — on a site that was once 42 vacant lots.

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ReBUILD Metro CEO Sean Closkey addresses a crowd inside a tent Wednesday, July 10, 2024, as construction continues behind him in Johnston Square. (Hallie Miller)

“It’s hot today,” Mayor Brandon Scott said during a speech Wednesday as construction workers made progress on a stretch of damaged homes behind him on East Biddle Street. “But it’s not as hot as it is now in Johnston Square.”

The small East Baltimore neighborhood has been deemed so successful that the city hopes to expand the block-wide model to more neighborhoods. Later this summer, the Scott administration is set to introduce the first-ever neighborhood-specific tax-increment financing package, which would allow the city to issue bonds to pay for public infrastructure costs that could ideally be paid for with future property tax revenues.

It’s part of an ambitious commitment made last year by the mayor, the Greater Baltimore Committee and faith leaders at BUILD — a ReBUILD Metro affiliate — to commit $8 billion over the next 15 years to combating the city’s vacancy epidemic.

“I want every neighborhood in Baltimore that has endured decades of deliberate disinvestment, like we’ve seen here in Johnston Square, to be able to look here and see what’s possible for them,” Scott said. “And what we’ll do with them in the future.”

It will not be easy.

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ReBUILD CEO Sean Closkey said Wednesday that getting Johnston Square off the ground has at times felt like “juggling chainsaws,” adding that at least $58 million in state and federal funding and investment is required, along with a $2 million commitment from the city’s COVID-19 relief fund and a range of financial partners to ensure any new asset is financially sound.

Closkey sees value in TIF, he said, though he cautioned that it might be better to test it first in places like Johnston Square before expanding to other, less experienced neighborhoods.

“It makes more sense for more experienced developers to try the pilot,” he said, “since they’ve already solved the design problem.”

The ReBUILD initiative, which has existed in some form for nearly two decades, has also learned to include community voices at every step, Closkey said.

In addition to a new green space, a pool and several parking lots, the Johnston Square facelift includes 30 renovated homes, with another 16 currently under construction, that will be offered at discounted rates to teachers and educators. Another 33 homeowners have received repairs and upgrades, and ReBUILD also has plans to add apartments specifically for working artists.

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Greenmount Park Apartments — the second multifamily building to open in Johnston Square since 2021 — will designate all 109 units as affordable, or reserved for those earning 80% or less of the area median income. That means household incomes range up to $95,000 for a four-person household.

Regina Hammond, a veteran Johnston Square homeowner and president and founder of the Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization, said the neighborhood doesn’t have to be an exception.

“But make no mistake, it all starts with the people in the community,” she said. “Who would have thought we would be so excited about what happened?”

By meerna

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