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Holding her ground

She rejected a $250,000 offer to move from her west-side home. University of Maryland built around her instead.

By Stephen Kiehl | Sun reporter

The last thing she needed was a fight. Darlene Dixon's husband had been dead for only six months and here was a big developer telling her it wanted to tear down her home.

Her neighbors on either side had said yes, agreeing to sell their rowhouses to make way for the University of Maryland, Baltimore's new west-side biotechnology park. Only Dixon, and her house filled with memories, stood in the way.

But the grieving widow held her ground. The developer built around her. And now, just off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Dixon's little rowhouse rubs elbows with a six-story, 220,000- square-foot biotech building that is home to cutting-edge genome research - an incongruous juxtaposition of Baltimore's past and future.
"I was a little old lady going up against a developer," said Dixon, who, at 51, isn't really so old. The developer not only backed down but built Dixon a new patio and fence, installed a new heat pump, and gave her $2,000 to buy patio furniture and a grill. Walls and windows that cracked during construction were repaired.

As development spreads across blocks of East and West Baltimore - just this week a third building for the west-side biotech park was announced - Dixon's story illustrates how urban renewal does not always mean that longtime residents must leave their homes. Sometimes, the high-tech and the historical can be neighbors.

On the city's east side, the Johns Hopkins biotechnology park and East Baltimore Development Inc. have come under fire for clearing dozens of acres for new development and displacing residents. Sensitive to the criticism, EBDI is moving a family this weekend that had been displaced three years ago back into the neighborhood, into a new home built by Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity.

When the new owner of the biotech park building, Wexford Science and Technology, and the university got involved, they realized that a fight with Dixon would not cast them in the best light and that they could build around her.

Wexford says it did not alter design plans to accommodate Dixon, but her house fits snugly inside the right angle of the L-shaped building.

The construction was noisy and started early in the morning, but Dixon came to like and trust her new neighbor. When construction workers needed to move her car, she would drop her keys down to them from the second-floor window. And now that the building is complete and university police are patrolling the area, Dixon said the neighborhood is safer and cleaner.

"The last thing we want to do is force someone out of their home if they don't want to go," said Steve Hanssen, vice president at Wexford Science and Technology, which is leasing the building to the university and others. On one floor, the university is installing top genome scientist Claire M. Fraser-Liggett and her team.

The biotechnology park has been so successful that a third building will go up at Baltimore and Poppleton streets. Hanssen doesn't expect eminent domain to be used in assembling land for that building, either.

"We don't play that game," Hanssen said. "That's not how you get ahead and build relationships