Frigid temperatures did not deter the standing-room-only crowd that gathered to celebrate the Jan. 28 grand opening of the Jean Yarborough Renaissance Gardens, a new residential community for seniors in Southern Park Heights. Joining the approximately 200 guests were Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young and Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton as well as clergy and community leaders from both the African American and Jewish communities.
The new 60-unit income-restricted community for adults 62 years old and older is the result of a partnership between CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc., an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, and Park Heights Renaissance, Inc. The Associated also sponsored
PHR was founded about five years ago with a mandate to implement the Baltimore City Park Heights Master Plan, said Julius “Julio” Colon, the organization’s president and CEO. The plan called for the transformation of the neighborhood through land and economic development, alongside human services development.
One area of concern was the lack of safe, affordable housing for the neighborhood’s seniors. Colon’s predecessor reached out to Ken Gelula, former executive director of CHAI, to propose a joint development project that would create a new residence for the seniors of Southern Park Heights. Gelula agreed to collaborate.
“CHAI’s mission is to develop and support thriving, stable communities in neighborhoods with a substantial Jewish population,” said CHAI’s current executive director, Mitch Posner. “Although Southern Park Heights doesn’t have a significant Jewish population, it is important to CHAI that our neighboring communities are also stable and thriving.”
Renaissance Gardens, which is 80 percent occupied, is built on a site once known as The Ranch that was widely known for the drug trade and gun-related crime. The new building has 60 one-bedroom units, multiple common spaces and amenities such as a beauty parlor, wellness suite, library/computer room and game room and a part-time social services coordinator. Residents are also eligible to receive services through partner organizations LifeBridge Heath
Network, the Park West Health System, the Zeta Center for Healthy Aging and the Delta Center.
Ellen Jarrett, CHAI’s director of housing and planning and development, led the project, acquiring the property, overseeing every phase of development, working with architects and contractors, obtaining permits and closing the finances with lenders. She also submitted funding applications that reaped approximately $9 million in grants to pay for the project.
“We made a business decision to help other small developers in adjacent communities,” said Jarrett, who echoed Posner’s philosophy about the need to help surrounding neighborhoods flourish.
Jarrett explained that if other developers see CHAI and PHR building in Southern Park Heights, they may be encouraged to build there as well. With new building, she said, will come positive change in the neighborhood.
Each of the 12 speakers at the grand opening referenced the important role that collaboration played in the success of the project. While many agencies were involved, it was the partnership between the Jewish and African-American communities that loomed large in the minds of officials.
“The Associated is proud to be a sponsor,” said Howard E. Friedman, the federation’s chairman of the board. “Renaissance Gardens beautifully illustrates our commitment to making a difference in the world … that we value innovation; and perhaps most importantly, this project reflects the value of collaboration and partnership between two communities and between CHAI and Park Heights Renaissance. It is my fervent hope that this will be the first of many partnerships in Park Heights.”
Both Rev. Glenna Huber of the Church of the Holy Nativity and Rabbi Moshe Hauer, leader of Congregation B’nai Jacob Shaarei Zion, gave blessings for the occasion. Huber blessed the “house and its residents,” and Hauer spoke about the need for the Jewish and African-American communities to continue to come together.
“God didn’t create a whole number of people. He created one man and one woman — Adam and Eve,” said the rabbi. “We ultimately share the same father and mother, so we are brothers and sisters.”
“I think there is a perception that the two communities can’t come to an understanding,” said Colon. “It’s a false interpretation. But in order to enter into an arrangement, there must be mutual respect of each other’s cultures. When I was hired, I was asked to cross that invisible line of Northern Parkway, and we’ve been doing that.”
“It’s been a pretty good honeymoon; now we’re into the marriage,” he continued. “No hiccups so far. With this project, both communities attempted to say, ‘We can live together, we can work together, and we can do business together.’ ”
While this is the largest collaboration between Southern and Northern Park Heights, it is not the first, stated Posner. “Last year, [PHR] opened a new food pantry right around the time when we do the [Passover] chametz-burning. So we alerted people and asked them to bring food they were giving away. People did it, and we helped to stock the shelves of the food pantry.”
Rawlings-Blake also struck an upbeat tone.
“I am so excited to be here,” said the mayor. “This community deserves a renaissance, and it is having a renaissance.”
Perhaps the most moving message of all came from Renaissance Garden’s first resident, Bernard Wells: “I’ve been in a few buildings but none can compete with this one. This is the Taj Mahal!”