Sweat trickled down Dan Bythewood’s forehead under the hot July sun. He promised the West Baltimore crowd he would keep his comments short so the 100 or so people who watched—activists, press, residents, and political leaders—could quickly retreat from the heatwave gripping the city.
The developer, who is Black, stood behind a podium placed in front of the technicolor homes on Sarah Ann Street, a narrow stretch of concrete not wide enough for two cars to travel in opposite directions. Bythewood, president of the New York development firm La Cité (“the city” in French), trained his sight on the historic Sarah Ann Street homes almost two decades ago, with plans to redevelop the houses and the surrounding Poppleton neighborhood. The Sarah Ann Street homes have been empty since 2020, those who owned or rented them removed over the years through the use of eminent domain.
Behind Bythewood was Sonia Eaddy. Her 319 North Carrollton Avenue house was just feet away from the podium, and, like the Sarah Ann Street houses, the Eaddy’s home was also on the maps for removal which laid out La Cité’s grand plan for Poppleton. The Eaddy home was slated to be razed and replaced, and the close-knit family who’ve lived there for three decades forced to leave.
But those plans were halted on July 18, 2022, as Bythewood stood before the crowd, sweaty, promising to work closely with the neighbors as he goes forward with his plans for Poppleton.
“[Today] is really about community,” Bythewood said.
He stuck to his promise not to talk for too long. The residents and the activists stood in the shade of a tree to shelter from the intense heat and humidity. Water was passed around to keep them cool and hydrated. Poppleton residents knew about Bythewood’s vision for their neighborhood, how he said he wanted to recreate the magic of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s famed Greenwood District, or Black Wall Street. And they knew he had a partner in the city who would help him take control of peoples’ homes and land in Poppleton, and sell more than $58 million in bonds to help pay for the infrastructure upgrades La Cité demanded for its Poppleton project.
Now, they could celebrate. For a moment they had won. Poppleton residents and activists had fought the city for more than a decade, and La Cité was being forced to hand over the rights to develop the Sarah Ann Street houses to a local nonprofit—Black Women Build – Baltimore—who will restore and sell the homes. After years of worrying that Bythewood would change his mind and just knock down the candy-colored homes on Sarah Ann Street and build anew, the activists were finally confident the houses would not be demolished.
Sonia Eaddy’s home on North Carrollton Avenue was removed from La Cité’s plans entirely, and saved from the brute force of an out-of-town construction crew’s wrecking ball.
“This victory is for us, all of us,” Eaddy said when she addressed the crowd. ‘’It’s not just Poppleton.”
The decision to have someone actually from Baltimore assist with the Sarah Ann Street Homes and to allow the Eaddys to stay was, in the words of Baltimore City Councilmember John Bullock, “a win-win.” Yes, the Eaddys would keep their home, but La Cité wasn’t leaving empty handed. The city agreed to pay $210,000 to Bythewood to forfeit his rights to demolish the Eaddy home and build on the land, plus another $50,000 for the empty home next door to the family. And Black Women Build – Baltimore has to pay La Cité $2,000 for each of the 11 homes on Sarah Ann Street they refurbish and sell.
Bythewood gets to walk away from the most controversial parts of his plan for Poppleton, and, in the process, gets paid to no longer develop land he never owned.
The decision chills the heat City Hall was receiving from residents and activists alike for ostensibly kicking Black families out of their homes in the name of “redevelopment.”
“It was the intent of everyone to bring about positive change and growth to this area,” Mayor Brandon Scott said during the press conference. “But sometimes … we just need to pause and think again about what’s best for our city.”
Tisha Guthrie stood alongside the activist and residents under the shade tree, feet from the podium. She has lived in Poppleton since 2021, in the Center/West apartments, the only two buildings La Cité has actually constructed out of the 30 planned for the neighborhood. Like so many people hearing the news, Guthrie was happy Sonia Eaddy had won.
“I’m glad she’s getting to keep her home,” Guthrie told me.
But when Bythewood and the city announced plans to move forward with more construction and development in the neighborhood—the next phase of his project— Guthrie shook her head.
“This isn’t going to change much for the rest of Poppeton,” she said.
Bythewood’s vision of Poppleton as Baltimore’s own Black Wall Street has been far from that, Guthrie explained. Center/West isn’t finished. The grocery store Bythewood promised hasn’t materialized. In fact, the first level of Center/West, designed with retail stores in mind, doesn’t even have a finished floor. La Cité has turned to transient occupancy to fill the building. It is hardly the image of community and “Black excellence” associated with Tulsa’s Greenwood District.
“If he knows anything about Greenwood he knows it was self-contained and organic,” Guthrie said. “It wasn’t the result of a developer coming from the outside to do anything. He isn’t willing to speak to the community, much less engage with the community to reach the success of Greenwood.”
The city announced La Cité would soon break ground on a senior apartment building on an empty lot just north of Center/West, and Baltimore will again turn to the bond market to help finance the project. The city, Guthrie said, was “bailing [Blythewood] out” for what he did to Sarah Ann Street and the Eaddys.
“I don’t see any lesson learned because this is a perpetual cycle that Baltimore keeps revisiting,” Guthrie said.
Days before the announcement on Sarah Ann Street, people who work for the city were out talking to residents and building support for its “win-win” plan. Baltimore City Housing Commissioner Alice Kennedy hoped to sell the community on the idea that developers and the residents can work in concert.
“I was talking with some people over the weekend and we cannot go back and we cannot change the past,” Kennedy said. “But we can only look to the future.”
Kennedy’s sentiment is comforting, but the land deal that allowed Bythewood to cash in property he never built nor owned for hundreds of thousands of dollars illustrates the relationship the city has with many developers who come to Baltimore.
“Baltimore is desperately seeking a savior,” Carol Ott, Tenant Advocacy Director at Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland, told me. “That can come in the form of one person, one company, or multiple companies. But the idea is the city doesn’t have the resources or the capital or the people to make it happen, so the city goes outside to find this magic bullet.”
Bythewood promised big, and the city fell for it. Not once, not twice, but three times.
Way back in 2004, Dan Bythewood first laid eyes on a parcel of land just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and south of Baltimore’s infamous “Highway To Nowhere.” Poppleton had long suffered from disinvestment and population loss. The neighborhood, on the edge of West Baltimore, didn’t receive the investment aimed at downtown’s waterfront communities that have long been the focus of Baltimore’s attempts to attract business and new residents. MLK Boulevard seemed like an informal barrier between Poppleton and downtown, between investment and neglect. Bythewood had an idea of what he could do to change that, and, like so many out-of-towners, it was prestige TV that informed his ideas of the city.
A native of Long Island, Bythewood’s view of Baltimore seems largely shaped by The Wire and the idea that the show’s depiction of the drug trade is closer to fact than fiction. “If you remember the episode of The Wire, the drug dealers would buy every other [rowhouse], so they could know who would knock on your door,” Bythewood told me. “We had to create density so that scenario wouldn’t happen any longer.”
While the scenario he recalls never quite happened on the show, Bythewood made it clear he wanted to “control the dirt” the way he imagines a drug lord would. His plan for Poppleton called for 30 buildings with 1,800 apartment units densely packed into the neighborhood. There would be businesses for residents to shop. This increase in commercial activity and new neighbors, he told me, would reduce crime. “When you have more people walking on the street or people looking at the street…you have fewer people doing bad things,” Bythewood said.
The neighborhood would be mixed-income and mixed-race, but Bythewood imagined it would attract its fair share of Black professionals.
“[Poppleton] used to function as a neighborhood of Black businesses and doctors and lawyers,” he said.
Poppleton, Bythewood told me, “could be Black Wall Street.”
In 2006, La Cité reached an agreement with then-Mayor Martin O’Malley, whose pro-development agenda and tough-on-crime “zero tolerance” approach to policing (nearly 100,000 people were arrested in 2006) fit nicely with Bythewood’s vision. He wanted 13.8 acres in the neighborhood. Many of the row homes were vacant, but there were still plenty of homeowners like the Eaddys living in Poppleton.
“The city had to acquire the property first,” Bythewood said. “There were a lot of holes in the doughnut.”
Baltimore City entered into a land disposition agreement, which meant it would use eminent domain to take properties such as the Eaddys’ home, and sell them to La Cité. Baltimore City would do the nasty work of clearing the neighborhood for the developer, similar to the ways that cities cleared the Black slums in the middle of the 20th century to make room for highways and high-rise housing projects. The work was scheduled to begin in 2007.
Little happened after the deal was signed. La Cité promised it could develop the land, but the 2008 housing bubble burst, credit dried up, and Bythewood couldn’t get financing.
“There was the Great Recession,” he said. “And everything stopped.”
Like so many cities which flourished during the post-World War II industrial boom, Baltimore has struggled with a hemorrhaging population, job loss, and thousands of vacant homes. And, for the last 20 years, the city has turned to tax increment financing to spur investment and kickstart redevelopment. Tax increment financing (TIF) is where a city sells bonds to pay for infrastructure such as water connections, street lights, sidewalks, and other street improvements like curb cuts to spur the development, usually in a business district or a retail corridor. The assumption is the bonds pay for themselves, as the tax skimmed off the incremental increase in property gains covers the cost of the bonds. The increased value, when there is one, doesn’t go to police, fire or schools. Where the appreciation of home values and commercial properties in regular neighborhoods provides more money for public services, in TIF districts, the increased value pays off the debt owed on the bonds.
Maryland approved the use of TIFs in 1980, but Baltimore didn’t use the financing tool for decades. Mayor William Donald Schaefer was a critic of TIFs, and claimed the deals were just a handout to developers. The beloved former mayor who went on to become governor believed TIFs didn’t spread redevelopment evenly across the city, and that certain neighborhoods would be chosen for development and improvement while others languished. TIFs would become cities within the city, directing money to neighborhoods that city leaders, developers, and the business community saw fit for investment. In Baltimore City, the birthplace of redlining, this had the potential to only deepen the divide between Black and white, rich and poor. And it did just that, with bonds backed by the full faith and credit of a majority Black city.
“They are asking Black people in a segregated city to pay for more segregation and redlining,” Ott said.
TIFs were first deployed in Baltimore in the early 2000s. M. Jay Brodie, then the head of the Baltimore Development Corporation, successfully lobbied for Baltimore to sell TIF bonds. Since then, the city has relied on the bonds to build projects like Harbor East and Port Covington, which received a whopping $660 million in bond funding (Port Covington received the largest TIF bond in city history, and has been mired in controversy from its inception, including allegations this past spring of wage theft).
Baltimore City established what Brodie called a “but-for” test.
“The ‘but-for test’ establishes the project won’t be built without the supplement from the government,” Brodie said. “That is, the numbers on the project will be in the red and not the black without the TIF.”
Unlike Chicago or Los Angeles, Baltimore doesn’t assign a TIF district based on location. City TIFs are project-based, meaning the developer comes requesting the financing. Former Baltimore City Councilperson Carl Stokes remembers when Brodie and the developers of Harbor East came looking for a TIF. “During the presentation we were told the property is among the most valuable on the East Coast,” Stokes said.
Stokes remembers sitting back in his chair listening to the Baltimore Development Corporation tout the value of Baltimore’s waterfront, and thinking something didn’t add up.
“I said to the [Baltimore Development Corporation], ‘do you hear yourself?’ ‘But we have to do this,’ they told me, ‘to make sure the land is developed,’” Stokes said. “Political leadership would say we couldn’t capture these developers without giving away money. And I was countering that because it was absolute bullshit.”
In 2012, after a half decade of not developing Poppleton, the city sued La Cité to get out of the land disposition agreement. The city lost, and, only three years later, La Cité approached Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, looking to sweeten the land deal. The company applied for TIF funding, requesting $58.6 million for lighting, street improvements, and water connections to redevelop Poppleton.
In La Cité’s application, the company pointed to the disinvestment in the neighborhood, rampant crime, and open-air drug dealing. “This was the same place where the HBO show The Corner was filmed,” Bythewood told me.
That show was not filmed in Poppleton. And the allegations of open-air drug dealing in the TIF application conflicted with the grassroots work happening before Bythewood fixed his sights on the neighborhood. In the early 2000s, residents converted an empty lot where homes had been demolished along Sarah Ann Street into a park, and kept a consistent presence there until the drug dealers left.
La Cité’s TIF presentation came in May 2015, days after parts of Baltimore City had burned in response to the police killing of Freddie Gray and decades-old issues in Baltimore, such as segregation. At the very moment when many were reckoning with how to radically change Baltimore, La Cité, Stokes explained, “was trying to figure out how to get enough land and enough housing to build a city within a city.”
Bythewood also offered the city something rare in TIF-financed deals: he would build affordable housing. Perhaps La Cité’s city within a city would be inclusive, Stokes thought. Despite questions about Bythewood’s finances and La Cité’s failure to develop the land from 2007 to 2015, Baltimore approved his application and began selling the bonds.
“Cities develop land, and often do so by neglecting or ignoring working people and the poor,” Stokes said. “Here was a young Black developer, and he came to us and said ‘I am going to do affordable housing.’”
La Cité became one of a handful of tax increment-funded projects which included any housing at all, let alone affordable housing. East Baltimore Development Incorporated (EBDI) had tried to do the same in the neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins Hospital. Like Poppleton, the project meant clearing a neighborhood and moving the residents out of their homes. And, like Poppleton, the project was scheduled to start not long before the housing market collapsed. However, EBDI has never produced enough property tax to cover the bonds sold by the city to help build the development, according to the Baltimore Development Corporation. Still, the city was ready in 2015 to partner with another developer using tax increment financing to develop affordable housing.
If the bonds are not covered by the TIF, the developer is on the hook to pay the difference. Bythewood said he doesn’t know if he has ever paid the special tax.
“I just pay my property taxes when they are due,” he told me.
Bythewood’s Center/West apartments have not covered the cost of the bonds, and his company has paid the special tax to cover those bond payments, according to Baltimore City’s Finance Department.
Bythewood claims he wanted to make a neighborhood, not a self-contained city, although so far all that he has to show for it is Center/West, a hulking two building complex painted gentrification gray. The twin buildings have door attendants, gyms, and one has a pool and a rooftop lounge. At five stories, Center/West stands out in a low-slung neighborhood with row homes. The complex casts a shadow over Edgar Allan Poe’s historic home, directly across Amity Street. Tisha Guthrie thinks the disconnect between Center/West and Poppleton is wide.
“The vibrations and the energy that you feel just looking across the street,” Guthrie said, standing with her neighbors in the lobby of one of the two buildings, “you have the Center/West complex and across the street you have a dilapidated park and homes owned by people who are being pushed out.”
The divisions can be felt within Center/West’s buildings themselves. The two buildings are largely mirror images on the exterior, but on the inside they couldn’t be any different. “Avra,” the larger building, has a pool and a rooftop bar, which Bythewood said was a matter of having more square footage on one of the lots. But residents in the smaller “Cirro” building point to interior hallway carpets that are not cleaned, parking spaces that are priced out of the reach of most tenants, and management that often doesn’t respond to the help line.
“No one picks up the emergency line,” said Ira McKoy, who moved to the Cirro building to be closer to work and his son. “Living here makes me feel like this is nothing but the projects.”
Walking into Avra, the carpets are cleaner, and the management staff has a rental office and greets residents and visitors. “They’re two completely different buildings and you can feel it almost immediately,” Guthrie said.
Cirro residents also complain about the revolving door of Airbnb guests and traveling nurses who come and go. “See? She has a badge from the hospital, she doesn’t live here full time,” McKoy said, pointing to a young white woman walking through the lobby.
Bythewood defended the use of Airbnb rentals, and called the traveling nurses “frontline heroes in the fight against COVID.” But when he set out to plan Poppleton, he imagined a community with deep social ties, not just fancy buildings for nurses to temporarily live in. He blamed Baltimore, a place he claims makes it too easy to break a lease, for the turn to transient occupancy to cover the cost of his building.
Just north of Cirro sits an empty lot. It’s where La Cité will begin Phase II of the Poppleton project. Senior housing will be built, along with a high-end neighborhood market. The city has already sunk $11 million of TIF money into the project, and expects to spend most, if not all, of the $58 million approved. The next phase means more bonds will be sold to help finance the project.
Back in 2006, Bythewood convinced Baltimore to help him clear land for development. When the development didn’t pan out and the city failed to get the development rights back, he convinced City Hall to give his firm $58.6 million to help finance his Poppleton project. And even as that project has been delayed and scrutinized for targeting homes and families for removal, the city paid him more than a quarter million dollars for land he never owned—so that the people who have been living here the longest can return, or not have their homes taken away from them.
City leaders have been convinced that developer subsidies and displacement is the cost of progress. “City leadership just felt—and sometimes Baltimore has this inferiority complex—that it had to give away money to get developers to develop real estate,” Stokes said.
The dance the city does leaves residents feeling expendable and so subservient to developers that the Eaddys getting to simply stay in their home is considered a victory.
“You are being sent a message by your government that you are not worth investing in,” Ott said. “We can move you around like pieces on a Monopoly board.”