The St. Mary's County commissioners signed an agreement this week authorizing a local nonprofit organization to lead the redevelopment of a 91-acre section of Lexington Park -- including Lexington Manor, a nearly deserted and soon-to-be demolished neighborhood of low-income housing.
The basic concept of the redevelopment, which could take several years, would be to leave the southern portion of the property for recreational use, eliminate the residences and turn the northern portion -- near an entrance to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station along Route 235 -- into a walkable commercial zone of upscale retail and office space, said Robin Finnacom, president and chief executive of the St. Mary's County Community Development Corp., the entity that will manage the project.
The county has long wanted to remove the white cinder-block housing known as the "Flattops" because of the declining condition of the largely duplex structures and because the neighborhood encroaches on the zones protected for the Navy base's flight operations. The low-income apartments, originally military housing, some with broken windows and others overgrown with weeds, were described by commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) as being in "relatively deplorable conditions."
Last year the county purchased the property with state, federal and local funds. More than 100 of the 110 families who lived there have been relocated, and the county plans to start demolishing buildings by late spring.
The memorandum of understanding signed Tuesday outlined plans for Lexington Manor and other properties nearby. In the agreement, the commissioners committed $180,000 to the Community Development Corp.
Of the total, $100,000 would go toward acquiring 18-month options to purchase two properties in the northern section of the 91 acres: the Bay District Fire Department property and what is known as the Whitlow family property, a collection of commercial buildings near routes 235 and 246 that house Linda's Cafe, County Sports, Affordable Heirlooms and other stores.
Because of the land's proximity to the Navy base, building restrictions would permit only 393,000 square feet of commercial space to be available for development, said Finnacom, or just nine of the 91 acres. Although the Community Development Corp. is waiting to hear from developers to create a specific vision for the area, local officials expect amenities such as fountains, benches, parks and plazas. The buildings could have first-floor retail and second-story office space.
It would be, Finnacom said, "a place where you would love to stroll, have your lunch outdoors and work in the office space that's there."
The plans also suggest extending Lei Drive and Tulagi Place, relocating the Three Oaks shelter and retaining the Three Notch Theater and the African American monument in Freedom Park.
The commissioners, who voted unanimously to approve the agreement, praised the plan.
"I think this is going to be a win for our county and our citizens, McKay said.
Commissioner Daniel Raley (D-Great Mills) described the project, which involves property valued at $10.3 million, as the county's largest redevelopment effort.
"I hope you know we're going to rely on you tremendously for this project," Raley told members of the Community Development Corp. "We've never been down this road before, and we need your expertise."
Some business owners, however, say the redevelopment plan is unnecessary and potentially damaging to the character of the area.
"Why destroy it?" asked Barbara Rivera, who opened County Sports in 1998 and likes her 6,500-square-foot space. She said some people might consider the shopping center a bit rundown, but it has charm, she said, and "this is Lexington Park, period."
And for the few remaining tenants of the Flattops, some say they have had difficult experiences trying to relocate.
Over 16 years, Calvin Gross, 43, and Eartha Holley, 47, have raised two daughters and built a life in their $300-a-month, three-bedroom apartment. Since May, they have looked at four or five other places to move but have been denied each time, they said.
"They say you haven't been working long enough, or your credit's not good enough," said Holley, a cashier at Wal-Mart. The two are looking for a mobile home and want to stay in the county. The deadline to be out is in December.
"It's hard how you're kind of forced to get up out of here," said Gross, a taxi driver. "We like this place, even when they had the drug dealers. It was still a pretty good neighborhood as far as we're concerned."
Of the more than 100 families who have left, 15 to 20 of them have become homeowners, said John Savich, director of the county's Economic and Community Development Department.
He said the residents received moving expenses, and most received the difference between their old rent and new rent for five years.
"It enables a family to make a positive difference" in their lives, Savich said. "It's really helping families get on their feet."
But one Flattops resident, who declined to give his name, said this week that he was disappointed with the county's relocation offer and vowed to stay. Standing behind his screen door Tuesday afternoon, he said he would put up a sign on his house declaring it was the Alamo.
"I'm not kidding," he said. "I'll stand them off."