Building hope

Strings of yellow and white flags span the 2300 block of Cross Street, left over from a block party neighbors held back in June. But there’s no need to take the banners down now because block captain Kathleen Martin is planning a "victory celebration."

For five years, by Martin’s count, she has been pleading with the city to help her block, where a strong core of homeowners gradually has been losing its battle with vacant and blighted properties.

Now, Council President Anna Verna’s office and other city officials have designed a rehabilitation plan, and by the middle of next year, construction could begin on new homes on the street.

The cost of the project could be as much as $2 million, said Kathleen Murray, the council president’s chief of staff.

Martin publicly and harshly criticized various city officials — including Verna’s office, the mayor and the Office of Housing and Community Development — during the past year as she grew more frustrated with the inaction on her block. Sometimes she had good reason.

For example, the 2300 block of Cross for several years was supposed to be part of OHCD’s Homestart program, through which the city rehabilitates vacant properties it owns, then sells them below market price to low-income buyers. The city agency never had enough money to acquire properties and do the work.

But last week, as Martin sat on a bench across from her home and puffed on a cigarette, she was all smiles and praise.

"[Murray] did her job … and Council President Verna, she’s good," Martin said. "They stood up for us this time."

And Martin could not be happier with the leading candidate to rebuild her block — local nonprofit Universal Companies. In June, Universal held a ceremony attended by Verna and Mayor John Street to unveil seven homes the company had rehabilitated on the 2100 block of Cross Street. Martin called the improvements "awesome."

The organization with a reputation for restoring neighborhoods in that area has met three times with residents from the 2300 block and staff from Verna’s office since July.

The parties finalized plans for the block two weeks ago, Martin said. In the coming months, the city will request bids from construction companies. Murray said she expects and hopes Universal will win the contract.

The first step, however, is for the city to acquire the 14 abandoned properties on the 2300 block of Cross. When Council reconvenes next month, Murray said, those properties, as well as a number on the southern half of neighboring Greenwich Street, will be included in a funding bill as part of Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative.

Construction could begin on the block as early as the middle of next year, Murray said. Plans include construction of new homes, conversion of some vacant lots to parking areas and construction of a short roadway running north and south, connecting Cross to Greenwich.

Some new homes also will be built on the south side of the 2300 block of Greenwich Street.

Martin, who readily admits she is primarily concerned with improvements to her block, said she also pushed for the construction on Greenwich Street. She was angry last year when the city demolished most of the homes on that block because it left the rear of her own home exposed. This resulted in higher insurance premiums for Martin and several of her neighbors, she said.

The new homes will be sold and owner-occupied. Officials from Universal have promised to screen potential buyers should they win the contract, Martin said. That is important, the block captain said, because she and her neighbors have successfully fought for years to keep their block clean while most of the surrounding neighborhoods have succumbed to drugs and violence.

"We respect each other. We keep our street as clean as we possibly can, and we don’t have any problem with each other," said Martin, 53, who has been block captain for 34 years. "We don’t have no problems. We don’t need no problems."

Officials from Universal did not return calls for comment.

Most neighbors on the street don’t know about the possible deal yet, but Martin said she hopes they will be happy. Senora Bryant, who joined Martin at the meetings with the city and Universal, praised the block captain’s persistence. She also said she is surprised how quickly the changes might happen.

"I’m just hoping I’ll be living to see it happen, not only for my benefit, but for the younger generation," said Bryant, 67. "Let them know how to appreciate things and how to take care of things."

Residents on the block have reason to be excited, Murray said. "The city wouldn’t have committed the resources to putting together the plan" unless they intended to go forward, she noted.