[Baltimore Sun] Dan Rodricks: A victory against the blight in Baltimore’s Baybrook | STAFF COMMENTARTY

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In the year before the pandemic, more than 200,000 cases of all kinds — civil, criminal and juvenile — were filed in the 24 circuit courts of Maryland. The number dropped significantly during the public health crisis, when courts were closed. But the judiciary’s annual report for 2022, the most recent available, shows a steady upward trend.

No surprise there.

It’s been said that Americans are way too litigious for our own good — too many lawyers, too many aggrieved parties filing lawsuits instead of settling petty disputes. But litigation is certainly a necessary recourse. And, you never know: Sometimes a small case can have a big result down the line. That might be what we’re looking at today.

“If you write a column,” Andrea Mayer says, “can you put in big, bold print that a Brooklyn printer is seeking lawyers to work pro bono to rid our lovely city of vacant buildings, or something to that effect?”

Mayer is feeling triumphant, having recently settled, with the help of attorney Janet Eveland, a lawsuit against the owner of an adjoining, blighted property that, they say, caused Mayer nothing but headaches for eight years. And now she’s looking for more legal help to go after the owners of other derelict, abandoned buildings.

Mayer runs a printing business on East Patapsco Avenue — pronounced “Pataps’aco” — in Brooklyn on the south side of Baltimore. She does this with her mother, Pat Wills. It’s a family business going back nearly 80 years, when Pat’s husband, John Wills, was still a student at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School and printing small jobs for customers in his parents’ basement. Later, John Wills set up shop in a rented space in Brooklyn before buying his own property, at 417 Patapsco, in 1986.

John Wills died nearly a decade ago, leaving his wife and daughter to run the business. Around that time, Wills Printing started to have a neighbor problem.

As Andrea Mayer tells it, the adjoining property, the former Hawkins Market (later Save-On-Food, a location of a scene from Barry Levinson’s 1987 movie, “Tin Men”), changed hands, and nothing good happened after that.

The business remained empty, boarded up. It became a hangout for drug dealers and an encampment for the homeless. Squatters and cats moved into the upstairs apartment. The backlot became choked with weeds, rats and dumped trash. A pipe burst in the old grocery store, flooding the basement of Wills Printing. At some point, there was a gas leak.

“The fire department showed up,” Mayer says, “and they had us evacuate our building, and BGE came out and they removed the [gas] meters. The guy that owned the building never showed up.”

Mayer says she spoke several times to the owner, who listed various reasons for delays in renovating the property. He was a nice guy, she says, but he always seemed to have an excuse for not reopening the store, as he claimed he would. At some point, he stopped responding to Mayer’s complaints.

As the condition of the property deteriorated, Mayer started to lose sleep that someone might accidentally set fire to the place. She spoke to police officers. She called the city’s 311 line to register complaints.

“My mom and I actually butted heads a little bit about it because I would call 311 and say certain things like, ‘Hey, you guys have got to fine [the owner] for not doing this and blah blah blah.’ And my mom fell for his spiel about how the building’s going to be great, and [he] just needs a little bit more time.’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, he’s been saying this for years.’ Finally, she was like, ‘Yeah, he’s full of baloney.’”

Mayer says she looked into the property owner’s background and discovered that he owned other commercial buildings and had purchased a house for $825,000 in December of 2022.

But the property at 413-415 Patapsco Avenue remained a nuisance, a hangout for people addicted to drugs or experiencing mental health issues, and numerous rats.

“It was demoralizing,” Mayer says.

There are vacant commercial properties throughout the city, and Councilwoman Phylicia Porter, who represents Brooklyn, sponsored a bill to force owners to at least keep such properties from becoming derelict. Unfortunately, the bill never got a hearing.

Meanwhile, Andrea Mayer consulted with Jan Eveland, an attorney and leader of Action Baybrook, a community organization on a mission to reduce the number of blighted properties in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay.

Mayer and Eveland decided to take civil action against the owner of 413-415 Patapsco. Eveland, serving the cause pro bono, filed suit in the Baltimore Circuit Court, seeking $1 million in damages for harm to Wills Printing as well as $1 million in punitive damages.

“I think that, when you’re at the point where you’ve been disruptive and destructive to the neighborhood, you should have to answer to the neighborhood,” Mayer says. “And that’s why we did what we did.”

The lawsuit is now settled. As part of it, the property was sold to a buyer of the plaintiffs’ choice, a man with a track record of renovating properties in Baybrook. He says he intends to renovate the old store and live in the second-floor apartment.

Mayer and Eveland are now thinking about taking similar action against other owners who neglect their properties for long periods of time and harm the south-side neighborhoods. I don’t usually root for more lawsuits, but, in this case, I wish them well.

 

 

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