Prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr. stood in a bone-chiling cold against the bleak backdrop of a vacant, vandalized apartment complex this week to announce that its final solution - the bulldozer - was near.
Kelly staged what was frankly a media event designed to assuage community feelings and to shake the federal bureaucracy by heralding the imminent, total demise of Baber Village, a 220-unit "garden apartment" complex built less than a decade ago on Central Avenue near Seat Pleasant to help solve low-income housing problems.
"On Feb. 6," Kelly said, "some bricks and debris are gonna be coming down. I'll have bulldozers on these grounds and tear down the property, with or without HUD's permission."
HUD is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an often slow-moving bureaucracy that took over the project when the sponsors defaulted on their mortgage, then gave the county housing authority money to buy the property to run and rent it to low-income families.
Because of deteriorating conditions and changing plans for the complex, however, the last tenants were moved out last spring. Plans to renovate the project were ditched after cost figures came in that were higher than the cost of new construction would be. So the next plan was to tear it down and start over with something else, such as fewer townhouses or maybe just a park.
For the homeowners of nearby Paper Mill Village, the wrecking cranes couldn't come soon enough.
"There was a 50 percent turnover in 10 years on my block," said Gene Buggs, of nearby 6708 Calmos St. "All of them cited Baber Village."
The neighbors cheered in August 1976 when one Baber Village building was demolished at a time when the plans still was to renovate the rest of the structures. In the new scheme of things, the county housing authority asked HUD late last year for permission to tear down the whole works.
The holdup came when HUD Secretary Patricia Harris decided to personally review all such requests on projects less than 10 years old, according to her aides.
"It is going to be a while before there is a decision from the secretary," Nancy Chisholm, deputy assistant secretary for subsidized housing said.
Meanwhile, the county condemned the buildings as unsafe and ordered them "removed" by Jan. 4. With the demolition request to HUD pending, the county extended its deadline for 30 days.
With no decision forthcoming, "We have to act because of intense pressure from the community," said Kelly strategist John Lally. "Getting it in the newspaper is the only way of breaking up the bureaucracy."
"This is news," said HUD official Chisholm, when told of Kelly's plans. "My guess is they don't have the right to tear it down without HUD permission. In comparable cases, local officials have waited for the HUD decision. You either have to have it boarded up or rented."
"If HUD wants to sue our housing authority or the council, or withhold funds, they'll have to do what they have to do," said a determined Kelly at the apartment complex site. He was accompanied by Delegates Nathaniel Exum, who lives two blocks away, and Frank Santangelo of Palmer Park. State Sen. Tommie Broadwater of Glenarden pulled up in his orange Eldorado as the others were leaving.
After a reporter's phone calls, Bill Wise, a public relations aide to Harris, said a decision may be reached before Feb. 6. "Whatever you were told" on Jan. 23 "is superseded by what I'm telling you now," Wise said.
Earl Morgan, Prince George's Housing Authority director, said he hopes for quick action "to solve my dilemma." When the first published reports of trouble at Baber Village appeared in 1969. Morgan recalled, "I remember working for the Montgomery County Housing Authority at the time and saying, 'Gee, I'm glad that has nothing to do with me.' Now I own it."