East Baltimore development rises from ashes of riots

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— It may have been the easy thing to do for The Woda Group to pull the plug on its development and revitalization efforts in East Baltimore after riots marred peaceful demonstrations and later threatened to destroy an entire neighborhood in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray.

Penn Square II interior

(Photo: David Johnson)

Penn Square II interior

After all, the developer watched like the rest of the nation as one of its developments in the area, the Mary Harvin Center, burned on April 27, 2015, the day after Gray was buried.

Officials at the company could have reasoned that spiraling crime, seemingly unending poverty and an overall sense of despair was just too much to overcome. However, the opposite proved true and the Woda Group’s commitment to help improve the area has continued.

“The emotion I felt when I watched the Mary Harvin Center burned was determination. I wasn’t angry or upset and it surprised me but that’s what I felt,” said Kevin Bell, the senior vice president of the Woda Group, which just completed the development of Penn Square II, a $16 million complex at the rear of the CVS Pharmacy.

“We said we were going to rebuild and do it the right way and there was never any thought that I had or anyone in our company of not doing this,” Bell said. “Our focus was just moving ahead.”

The grand opening of Penn Square II is scheduled for Thursday, January 28, 2016, five years after the opening of Penn Square I, which provides 91 garden-style apartments available to families earning between 40 percent and 60 percent of Baltimore’s median income.

This second phase, which appeared threatened by the unrest, provides an additional 61 units of housing that offer easy access to public transportation, high-speed Internet, computer labs, a learning center and an on-site daycare.

“It’s all in an effort to help the residents advance economically,” Bell said, noting that his company has been behind development in other distressed communities.

A fully integrated multifamily developer, general contractor and property management firm, The Woda Group has offices in Baltimore, Annapolis and in several cities around the country.

Bell said they’re committed to providing quality affordable rental housing.

“We have a commitment, a responsibility to do whatever we can to help revitalize these communities,” Bell said. “A lot of these communities weren’t always distressed but something happened and that’s where we come in.”

The local neighborhood association also proved to be a catalyst for the latest development and the ongoing work to rebuild the Mary Harvin Center, Bell said.

“We try to work closely with the association and Annie Hall. The president of the Penn North Community Association has been working closely with us for years and I think it’s great that the community has her,” he said. “The thing is, the community wants to be revitalized and they cannot be vital and vibrant again unless money is put into it. Community revitalization is like watering a garden. If you don’t water it, it won’t grow.”

Bell says Penn Square is proof that when government and private resources come together, good things happen for communities.

“One of the important things is that this is a strong community with people in the neighborhood who are committed to their community,” Bell said. “Whenever you have a strong community association, there’s fertile ground and that says there are folks we can work with.”