—– By: Ann Costantino —–
On April 2, a large group of Towson residents will gather to memorialize the anniversary of what some refer to as “Treegate,” in which Baltimore County government officials secretly removed 30 trees from a development site last year, withheld information from the public, even calling the scandal an insignificant issue, all while running roughshod over a proper legal process in order to assist Towson-based developer, Caves Valley Partners, with its private development project known as “Towson Gateway.”
The date of the gathering, which is scheduled one day to the year after 30 trees were mysteriously removed under the direction of County Administrator Fred Homan, will fall on the evening of a scheduled county council meeting.
The memorial and protest, led by the Save Towson Gateway group, is expected to draw a large crowd of protesters who will chant “never again” in protest of a county government who some see as siding with a developer over constituents, lopping down trees and extending a contract in secret, while receiving significant campaign contributions over the last eight years.
Meanwhile, just south of the county, in neighboring Baltimore City, residents there said goodbye yesterday to two longtime tenants of Federal Hill’s Cross Street Market for reasons similar to Towson’s felled trees; and much like county officials who accepted roughly $160,000 in campaign contributions from the developer, The Baltimore Post found that Baltimore City’s elected officials took in at least $140,000 in combined campaign contributions since 2006 from Caves Valley Partners (CVP), its executives and affiliate companies.
A changing landscape…
On Saturday, Both Bruce Lee’s Wings and Baltimore’s Best Bar-B-Que bid adieu to their restaurant stalls after decades in business at the Federal Hill location.
In order to make way for a CVP development project, some businesses are leaving or are being pushed out by not being offered new leases.
The two Asian-American businesses are two of at least half a dozen vendors that have so far vacated the premises due to disagreements or incompatibility with CVP’s development plans after the developer took over management and development of city-owned Cross Street Market last year to renovate its existing roughly 30,000 square-foot structure, and control the types of businesses that will inhabit the space once development is complete.
Faced with her last day at the market yesterday, Cindy Yu of Baltimore’s Best Bar-B-Que, told The Baltimore Post that because she would not make the changes requested by the developer, “they won’t let me come back.”
Mrs. Yu and her husband Chen have served Chinese food at the market for 20 years.
CVP told the Yus that they would have to change their recipes and the way they served their customers. Instead of steam warmers to keep the food hot, for instance, the Yus would be required to make their Chinese dishes one at a time, on demand, which they said could not work for the type of food service they offered in a location that does not accommodate seating like a traditional restaurant, in which patrons order from a menu and wait patiently for their meals.
Unlike a full service restaurant, Cross Street Market inhabited both restaurant and product vendors which each had stalls within its block-long building that sits between Light and Charles Street.
While some vendors have two spaces, one for seating and one for the restaurant service, others only have a walk-up ordering counter where customers pick from a limited menu and take their food “to go.” The set-up the Yus had was designed like a food court at a mall in which most customers picked their entrée which included a side of rice in a Styrofoam takeout container.
Ordering their last meal from the Yu’s stall yesterday afternoon, longtime customers Donna and Vince Bionado told The Baltimore Post that the Chen’s restaurant was “a great place to eat.”
“It’s the best Chinese food I’ve ever had by far,” Ms. Bionado said. She said that she and her husband had been customers for about 10 years and had traveled from Dundalk every Saturday – roughly 20 minutes away, paying a toll in each direction – to get the Yu’s food. She said they came “for the great food and great service.”
A sign in the Yu’s stall directed customers to go to Hollins Market in Baltimore starting April 1 where, Mrs. Yu said, relatives have a restaurant. The Yus do not know if they will be able to open a new restaurant, but said that they will occasionally help out at their family’s Hollins Market location.
Another customer who stood at the beginning of a long lunch line in front of Yu’s stall, told The Baltimore Post that the recent changes occurring at the market made it feel “completely different” and “not the same home.”
Jennifer Peightal told The Baltimore Post that in the developer’s effort to create a gourmet and upscale market, they in effect “destroyed it.” “This community is home to blue collar people,” Ms. Peightal said. The market is “fading away to nothing. We won’t be coming back. We won’t support this,” Mrs. Peightal said as she and her husband, Brian, walked out of the building with their last lunch from the Yus.
Don Burke, who also purchased his last meal from the Yus yesterday, stood with his granddaughter who was holding a baguette and other packages from different vendors from the market.
Mr. Burke, who is originally from Towson, said that he had been coming to Cross Street Market since 1982. He said it was a “vibrant place with different smells and different merchants opposed to what it is today.” But, Mr. Burke said, “We all hope for a bright future for one of the city’s gems.”
Yet, Mr. Burke continued, “in the meantime, we see a skeleton of what was here.”
After a few design adjustments, CVP is planning a complete retro-style renovation of the property, a nod to the market’s 1950s era. The 1846 structure was rebuilt in the early 1950s after a fire destroyed the structure. While The Baltimore Post could not find a single person opposed to the idea of redevelopment of the property, the consensus was not that it was being done, but how it was being done and who it was being done to.
The project has also received community support. The Cross Street Market website links to a petition where 487 supporters expressed their wishes to revive Cross Street Market “with new food & drink options.” Another petition, also last signed one year ago, received 1,105 signatures by those in support of redevelopment of the market.
Yet, some of the market’s longtime patrons have expressed their frustration with the developer on social media, due to the closing of the market’s vendors, including Bruce Lee’s Wings.
“Bruce Lee Wings – the best thing in the Cross Street Market. After 27yrs to be told what you can and cannot sell,” one patron said. “Talk about squeezing the little people.”
Mike Ramp, who had frequented the chicken wing vendor two to three times a week for 25 of the restaurant’s 27 years, told The Baltimore Post yesterday, “It’s ridiculous.” He said the developer is trying to cater to different class of people. He said, but “that ain’t what built this market and it ain’t what kept it alive all of these years.” It is due to the “working people,” Mr. Ramp said.
Another supporter created a GoFundMe page for the business to assist with what they see as the death of a city staple, stating, “Over the years, Bruce has been a big part of all of our lives. He’s a part of our routines. From yearly game day tailgating traditions to the best breakfast sandwich hangover cures. Some of us have been visiting Bruce’s all of our lives! He’s family,” the fundraiser’s creator wrote.
The two closures follow other longtime businesses bidding goodbye to not just Cross Street Market, but to their decades-old family businesses.
Big Jim’s Deli, a beloved sandwich shop known for its pastrami sandwiches, beer and “Cheers” bar appeal, where “everyone knows your name,” closed its stall in December after almost 40 years of service.
Outraged patrons also expressed their frustrations to news of their closing on social media last winter, “The market will never be same without you …. Thank you for being a beacon of light within our community,” one customer said.
“Big Jim’s will live forever in the lore of South Baltimore,” another said.
“Its………unacceptable, unfair & utter BULLS**T,” said yet another, while not mincing words.
A vendor, who wished to remain anonymous, didn’t hold back either when he told The Baltimore Post about his frustrations about the closings. “Put it this way, we got f**ked!” the vendor said. The vendor continued, “these guys, these guys…they just don’t give a f**k!” the vendor said of the developer.
Also, as reported by SouthbMore.com earlier this month, Asian-American owned Cross 10 Grocery, which sold lottery tickets, cigarettes and select grocery items, moved from the market when not offered a spot in CVP’s new market vision.
A current vendor also approached a Baltimore Post reporter yesterday to point out her view that “all of the Asian vendors” were forced out through various means, while most of the “American” or “white vendors” got to stay or were at least among the new businesses being welcomed into the space.
The minority vendors expressed frustration over what they say appeared gave preferential treatment to certain races and said that some of the Asian vendors felt powerless due to an inability to speak English proficiently in order to advocate for themselves.
Two existing vendors told The Post that an Asian-American fruit vendor and sushi restaurant also left the market recently, for either not meeting developer’s demands or not being offered new leases.
But even one of the market’s new vendors, Cookie Dough & Co., which moved to the market in December is rumored to be leaving the market. A person connected to the company confirmed with The Baltimore Post that the vendor has found a new space nearby, but could not confirm if it will be an additional location or the company will move from the market to that destination.
Yet, while things were changing at the Baltimore City market, a twenty five minute drive to the north in Towson, county residents were in an upheaval over another CVP development project in which county officials cut down the 30 trees.
Towson’s “Treegate” saga initially began in 2012 when County Executive Kamenetz put up for sale the old Towson Fire Station and Public Works Facility located at 800 York Road.
The York Road and Bosley Avenue property known as Towson Gateway, received five bids. The county would ultimately choose CVP after developer, Mark Sapperstein could not produce a letter of commitment from his proposed grocery tenant, Harris Teeter, within an allotted two-month period given by the county.
Despite community opposition to CVP’s plans for the space – a Royal Farm gas station – the Baltimore County Council at the time unanimously approved the $8.3 million sale of the Towson fire station and public works site to the developer. (The county has since accepted a lower offer, as reported by the Towson Flyer last week. The developer also says it will no longer consider a Royal Farms gas station for the space.)
Yet at the time, hundreds of Towson residents opposed developer, Caves Valley Partners’ proposed gas station which was incompatible with a zoning classification at the site.
However, through the issuance of an also unanimously approved Planned Unit Development (PUD) application, the county council approved permission for CVP to build a gas station on the site. Specifically included in the language of a PUD resolution, however, was the protection of trees on the property.
Yet, despite the legislative resolution, county administrative officer, Fred Homan, defied the county council’s vote that not just protected the trees, but specifically opposed their removal, when he ordered the trees removed through a rushed and secretive process, as reported by The Baltimore Post in December.
Within days of the trees’ removal last April, Mr. Homan excused his decision stating that the trees were cut down in an effort to “accelerate the settlement to the developer.” County funds, intended for ground maintenance, were used to remove the trees. Additionally, the county paid for the removal of a building on the property.
In all, although the property was to be sold “as-is,” the county used at least $120,000 in public money to fund CVP’s private Towson Gateway development project.
Documents obtained through a battle for public records show that the developer attempted to have the same trees removed one year before the county completed the job last April for them, at taxpayers’ expense.
To make matters worse, three months after Mr. Homan ordered the trees removed, he would quietly sign a five-year contract extension with the developer. In contrast to the two months losing-developer Mr. Sapperstein was given, Mr. Homan in effect gave CVP 10 years in which to settle with the county – and no one, not even council members, knew it.
Campaign records show that Mr. Sapperstein and his company donated roughly $20,000 to Baltimore County’s elected officials, an amount that is in stark contrast to approximately $160,000 given by CVP, its partners and affiliate companies. The Post only counted donations that could be directly tied to the developers.
The entire development process, which seemed to favor CVP over those impacted by the development decisions, outraged residents in both Baltimore City and County.
City campaign contributions…
In an effort to understand why officials seemed to bend to the wishes of CVP, last summer The Baltimore Post reported on significant campaign contributions from the developer and its affiliate companies to Baltimore County’s elected officials.
Through the same exercise, The Post found similar contributions to city officials in which three mayors, past and present council members and other representatives for the area received over $140,000 in contributions between 2006 and the last campaign contribution reporting deadline.
- Former Baltimore County Council member and Mayor Shiela Dixon: $2,000 from the developer between 2006 and 2009.
- Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake: $30,300 between 2010 and 2014 from roughly one and a half dozen CVP affiliate companies.
- Mayor Catherine Pugh: $27,750 between 2015 and 2016 from CVP’s partners, CVP directly and CVP affiliates. Mayor Pugh also received $5,700 from the spouse of one of CVP’s partners, Steven Sibel, between 2006 and 2012. The Baltimore Brew reported in December that Mr. Sibel is now Mayor Pugh’s campaign finance chairman.
- State Senator Bill Ferguson, who represents the area covering Cross Street Market: $16,500 between 2010 and 2018 from CVP and affiliates.
- District Eleven’s City Council Member Eric Costello: $7,500 between 2014 and 2017, distributed through five contributions from CVP affiliates.
- City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young: $12,500 between 2011 and 2017 from two CVP partners, CVP and CVP affiliate companies.
- Former city council member and current director of the Baltimore Development Corp. (BDC), Bill Cole, received $3,500 between 2007 and 2014 from CVP, two CVP partners and CVP affiliates. Mr. Cole was appointed to the position by former Mayor Rawlings-Blake in 2014. The BDC is a non-profit organization which serves as the economic development agency for the city of Baltimore.
- Five current city council members took in a combined total of $26,250 between 2011 and the most recent filing period, while five former city council members accepted a total of $14,000 between 2007 and 2015.
In all, excluding donations given by spouses who sometimes used CVP’s business address when they contributed, city officials accepted over $140,000 from CVP, its partners and affiliate companies between 2006 and 2018.
Towson saga continued…
While Baltimore City underwent its changes, including other development projects like Stadium Square, back in Towson, CVP negotiated – not one, not two, but three – agreements with the county which benefited the developer. One to extend the date of sale of The Towson Gateway property, another as part of the Towson Row development project, which included a new $400,000 a year lease deal for a Washington Avenue parking garage.
And the government assistance continued.
In December, the majority of the Baltimore County Council voted to give CVP and a new partner in the previously stalled Towson Row project, Greenberg Gibbons, $43 million in upfront payments: $26.6 million in payments in lieu of revitalization tax credits and a grant for $16.4 million for future hotel taxes the county expects to eventually collect from hotel guests, once the hotel portion of the project is up and running. The Baltimore Sun was first to report the proposal.
Flanked by major holidays, the date of the $43 million vote also landed one month after Councilwoman Vicki Almond stated that the county was headed for difficult financial times. Councilwoman Almond decided ultimately to vote in favor of the grant and tax credits.
County campaign contributions…
The Baltimore Post previously reported that the developer, along with Royal Farms, donated roughly $130,000 and $30,000, respectively, to the county executive, the county council and a slate campaign co-created by the county executive.
Updated campaign records show that contributions from Caves Valley Partners and its affiliates continued after the Towson Gateway debacle.
- District Two Councilwoman Vicki Almond’s total rose to $11,750 from the developer. Royal farms had also donated $4,500 to the councilwoman.
- County Executive Kevin Kamenetz received the most of all donations from Caves Valley Partners and its affiliates, receiving $4,000 more after the “Treegate” debacle, bringing his total to $61,000. Royal Farms also donated $12,500 to the County Executive. A $1,000 donation was reported from the parent company after the trees were removed.
- Royal Farms also added $3,000 to District Six Councilwoman Cathy Bevins’ coffer, bringing her total from the convenience store and gas station vendor to $5,800, while she received a total of $8,000 from CVP.
- District Seven Councilman Todd Crandall’s donations rose to $1,600 from the developer and $2,750 from Royal Farms, while District One Councilman Tom Quirk’s donations from CVP remained steady at $12,500.
- Councilmen Julian Jones’ (District Four) and David Mark’s (District Five) campaigns remained unchanged, $4,500 and $20,000 respectively, while District Three Councilman Wade Kach’s contribution increased by $1,000, bringing it to a total of $2,000, for a previously unreported amount donated in 2015. Councilman Kach also received $5,000 from Royal Farms in 2015. However, no donations were received by the councilman from the developer or Royal Farms after 2015.
The total donated by CVP to Baltimore County officials and a slate campaign since 2009: $136,950. But when including previous county council members defeated in the last election, the number rises to nearly $160,000, which does not include $36,550 from Royal Farms and its parent company, nor multiple donations from the developers’ spouses who, like in Baltimore City, sometimes used CVP’s business address from which to make the donations.
The government’s response…
While none of the city’s elected officials contacted by The Baltimore Post responded to a request for comment, two county officials responded to The Post’s request.
Although The Post contacted all seven of the councilmembers, only two members – both Republicans – responded with comment. The County Executive’s office also did not respond. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz (D) is running for governor.
District Three Councilman Wade Kach told The Post in an interview, “I know a lot of people are frustrated with a lack of response form the county government, keeping issues secret while unwilling to release information that I think is important for the public to have.”
District Five Councilman David Marks sent a statement saying, “I have disagreed with the Kamenetz administration on a number of issues over the past seven years, and because we pushed back, there were victories for the community. We boosted open space funding from developers, required more rigid design standards, and blocked certain rezoning recommendations. In the aftermath of the tree episode, I attempted to place a moratorium on future actions, but there was insufficient support from the Council.”
State Senator Jim Brochin, a Democrat running for Baltimore County Executive, was not immediately available for comment, but has been outspoken about what he calls “pay-to-play” in Baltimore County.
Throughout the ordeal, the senator has encouraged community members to keep fighting. “Developers run the show here,” he said at the end of a contentious council meeting last summer. “That is not the way government is supposed to work. Keep up the fight and end ‘pay to play’ in Baltimore County,” he said. “The government is yours. It is not the developers. This is your county, not the developers’ county.”
Of the six candidates running for County Executive, only two have received contributions from the developer. Councilwoman Vicki Almond (D) and former State Delegate Johnny Olszewski, Jr.(D). In addition to Councilwoman Almond’s $11,250, Johnny Olszewski, Jr. received $11,750 from the CVP and its affiliates between 2008 and 2015.
Mr. Olszewski sent a statement to The Post, “I’m the only candidate who’s calling for a public option to finance local elections. As county executive, I’ll stand up to the special interests and we’ll get back to working for the people. With a public option, there will be no question as to whom public officials are accountable: the people. I’m proud to have a diverse coalition of supporters from individuals and activists to small business owners and labor unions who believe in my bold vision for a better Baltimore County.”
Councilwoman Almond, who did not respond to a request for comment, told the Towson Flyer in a November interview that the reason developers give money to elected officials is “not to make you do what they want you to do.” She said, “They give you money to have access. They want access to the public servant.”
Towson’s protest and tree memorial begins at 5pm on April 2 at the 800 York Road site. The group, which is led by the Save Towson Gateway, will then bring its message to the old courthouse to continue its objections in front of council members at the 6pm council meeting. The protesters are rallying for honest government. A press release from the group states that it wishes to make elected officials “accountable to the people they serve and not the developers who wish to make themselves wealthy on Baltimore County land.”
Principals from Caves Valley Partners did not respond to requests for comment.