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South Baltimore neighborhoods are divided on support for controversial Maglev project

Baltimore Sun 9/16/2022 Lorraine Mirabella, Baltimore Sun

Westport neighborhood groups remain strongly opposed to a high-speed Maglev train that would cut through their community’s undeveloped waterfront, despite new support for the controversial project from a larger coalition of South Baltimore residents.

The South Baltimore 7 Coalition, or SB7, which represents South Baltimore communities, said earlier this month it supports the passenger train proposed by developer Baltimore-Washington Rapid Rail, including a Maglev station in Cherry Hill. The coalition said it expects to negotiate a community benefits agreement with the developer.

But only half of six coalition communities voted in support of the $10 billion rail project that would link Washington and Baltimore, the head of a Westport group and a coalition member said Friday.

“It looks like Westport is in support of something that we have explicitly said numerous times, absolutely not,” said Keisha Allen, president of Westport Neighborhood Association. “It’s hurtful and it’s disgusting because these people [who voted in support] don’t have to live with the decision.”

Westport residents instead favor an alternate proposal for the 43 acres eyed by the rail developer — plans for a variety of housing, retail, possibly a small office building and a park under development by Stonewall Capital and Westport Capital Development, which purchased the parcel between Kloman Street and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River in June 2021.

Stonewall and BWRR have been entangled in a legal tug of war over the property for more than a year that started when the rail operator filed a condemnation lawsuit in June 2021 in Baltimore City Circuit Court. Rapid Rail argued that authority to build a passenger station stems from its acquisition of the former Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis Electric Railroad Co. franchise in 2015.

After the Circuit Court dismissed the eminent domain case in August 2021, the rail operator appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s decision and returned the case for trial in Circuit Court. Stonewall Capital and Westport Capital fired back, accusing the train operator in court filings of having no ability to buy the site. They are seeking a court order requiring BWRR to post bond in the amount of $31 million.

While the legal battle plays out, BWRR is awaiting approval from the Federal Railroad Administration and has been meeting with community groups, Wayne Rogers, CEO of BWRR, said Friday. That led to the SB7 coalition meeting Sept. 9.

“We’re very pleased that SB7 voted to support it,” Rogers said. “We think it’s good for the community.”

The next step will be working with residents to decide how the project can benefit communities, he said, adding that no specific dollar amounts or projects have been discussed. He said locating a South Baltimore station in Cherry Hill would spur investment, bring about 200 permanent jobs at the station and thousands more to build and operate the rail service,

When asked about lack of unanimous support from the coalition and Westport’s opposition, Rogers said he does not “accept the premise that all of Westport is against this project.”

“You’re never going to get unanimity among people about any project,” he said. “But I think it’s significant that that SB7 has banded together to try as a group of communities to figure out what’s best for the greater community.”

Allen said she and a representative for Brooklyn voted against support of Maglev, while representatives of Lakeland, Mount Winans and Cherry Hill voted in favor. A representative for Curtis Bay abstained, she said.

“In the case of Maglev...they’re looking for gullible people to go along with this dog and pony show,” she said. "

Her group and the Westport Community Economic Development Corp. have opposed the rail project as poorly conceived and inequitable, saying it won’t benefit Westport residents or residents of the city as a whole. The housing redevelopment, on the other hand, would connect the existing community and an improved waterfront with plans for affordable housing for families and seniors, a park and affordable retail and commercial space.

“We don’t have anything in Westport like that,” she said. “And now that we’ve gotten this far, everything is in jeopardy.”

If the rail operator condemns the land, it could end up looking like the ‘highway to nowhere,’” she said referring to the infamous extension of I-70 that was started and cancelled in West Baltimore, leaving a gulf in the neighborhood. “It’s at the expense of Westport residents.”

Michael Middleton, chair and president of the SB7 and also executive director of the Cherry Hill Development Corp., said in a statement announcing the vote that SB7 has engaged in initiatives to “deliver results in South Baltimore — and we want the Maglev to be one of those.”

Middleton could not be reached on Friday.

SB7 also negotiated a community benefits agreement with developers of the Port Covington waterfront community in South Baltimore. In the latest round of investments, developers provided $2.5 million in grants and other funds in the past year to help revitalize neighborhoods. Middleton said in the statement that placing the high-speed rail station in Chery Hill, at the current light rail station, would generate opportunities for economic development, housing and entertainment.

Pam Oliver, chair of SB7′s transportation committee and director of the Lakeland Community Association Partnership Inc., said in a statement that a partnership with BWRR could offer residents’ possibilities such as more STEM education, employment and transportation.

At the Westport waterfront site, Stonewall Principal Ray Jackson is proceeding with development and expects to start grading for townhouse construction next month.

“Stonewall has been transparent about its redevelopment plans with all the neighborhoods,” said Al Barry, a consultant for Stonewall. “We always supported the idea of SB7 and find it unfortunate...that some of these other neighborhood groups that aren’t even impacted by Maglev chose to vote against the community which is the most impacted.”

©2022 Baltimore Sun. Visit baltimoresun.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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