Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Can the State save blighted communities in the City with $700 million?

Governor Hogan's plan to spend $700 million on disinvested communities in the city is great news. It far exceeds the Empowerment grant of a $100 million dollar provided by HUD fifteen years ago and is as big as the State's share on the Red Line which was withdrawn. That kind of investment can really make a difference.

It was also great to see the Governor and the Mayor stand side by side, both speaking about cooperation flanked by State Senator Pugh and Council President Young.

The devil of such large programs sits in the detail and much of that is not yet known (some detail can be found here).  In typical Hogan fashion, there is immediate action. And much of the emphasis appears to be focused on demolition. Some of the $75 million four year demolition budget (almost tripling the current Baltimore City demolition budget of $10 million annually, "demolition dollars on steroids" as Mayor Rawlings Blake put it) was spent right on the spot with the demolition of the first house  which will be followed with the demolition of the entire block of  1000 N Stricker Street on both sides of the street next week. 
Governor Hogan announcing the community investment plan with Mayor
Rawlings Blake, Senaoto Pugh and Coiuncil Pres.  Young on his side
(Photo: WYPR)
“Fixing what is broken in Baltimore requires that we address the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings infecting entire neighborhoods. Together, we will transform these neighborhoods from centers for crime and drugs, to places our city, and our entire state, can be proud of. Working with the private sector to invest in projects like affordable housing, retail, and other new businesses will help ensure that Baltimore becomes a better place to live, work, and retire.” Governor Hogan.
Wholesale demolition is not a good idea in historic neighborhoods. There is no need for entire blocks to be green space like the one lovingly rendered on the poster Hogan had standing next to him as a prop. Sure, the open spaces are easier to police and have fewer nuisances than boarded up houses. At least in the short run. But they also tend to be wastelands as one can see in Detroit, North Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Demolition in the 1000 block of Stricker Street (SUN photo)

The long run, though, is another story. Vast demolition in East Baltimore brought large meadows which persist in spite of massive investments near 1 billion dollar to date and the power-house of the Johns Hopkins University next door.

In the long run Boston, DC and other cities have the better record. They have proven that rehabilitation can repopulate disinvested neighborhoods and that the historic fabric is of a higher quality (true especially in West Baltimore with its stately three story homes) and a much better option for a long-term viable community.

Over the years West Baltimore already has built many blocks of new construction devoted to affordable housing, built by Habitat for Humanity, Enterprise and as a result of the HOPE VI redevelopment of the former high-rises. Not only did these investments failed to stem the decay, in most cases those new homes introduced a suburban element that is foreign to the context and would never have been allowed in the historic communities of Bolton Hill, Fells Point or Federal Hill. It is also worth remembering that the decline of West Baltimore started with the massive demolition that came with the public housing developments of Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes, both projects that have since been considered failures and been demolished again. Another huge and devastating demolition project occurred for the "highway to nowhere" that cut the fabric of grown communities in half.

The other concern is social and economic. Some people still live in even the most dilapidated blocks and relocation requires lots of assistance. The money for it appears to be there now. Neither rehabs nor new construction  should exclusively cater to the poor with only affordable housing being built. It is important to have mixed income communities. Many of the troubles in the current communities, including the lack of supermarkets and services, stem from the high concentration of extreme poverty. Although initially new residents can probably only be drawn from lower income groups, it will be key to create catalytic projects of a scale that attract middle class residents who have choices. Models could be the slow diversification of Reservoir Hill, Barclay or the more rapid conversion of the areas north of Patterson Park, Remington or in prior years Hampden and Locust Point. All of those Baltimore communities were once struggling and are now thriving.
Under the terms of the four-year partnership, the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore will focus on the transformation of blighted city blocks. The Maryland Stadium Authority is the project manager responsible for overseeing the demolition of vacant structures jointly identified by Baltimore City and state authorities. Total estimated funding over the next four years for the demolition portion of the project includes $75 million from the state and in-kind administrative services from the City of Baltimore.[..] Once demolition is completed on a city block, empty lots will be replaced with green space and assessed for their potential to be redeveloped in the future. The first demolition in the city-state partnership will be in the 1000 block of N. Stricker Street in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. (State Press Release)
Demolition in Remington under Vacants to Value
State Senator Pugh is optimistic about the Governor's plans. When asked for comment she responded: 
"With all the devastated neighborhoods in Baltimore the demolition money provided by Governor Hogan will help Baltimore move forward. It is important that the Mayor and the Governor work together to assure that the desired results are achieved and communities and residents of Baltimore are the beneficiaries of better housing, new retail, green space and jobs" (Senator Catherine Pugh).
The point of State and City cooperation is most imperative. The Maryland Stadium Authority has vast powers. The agency has experience in the City through the Baltimore City school construction program but they lack experience with housing or the challenges of close coordination between all the city agencies that have to collaborate to turn communities around. One can hope that they won't operate as a State overseer in the local jurisdiction. 

Even though it is hard to trust Baltimore Housing after the recent scandals, the City's Vacants to Values program administered by Baltimore Housing has some really good strategies which need to be applied here. (One has to distinguish between the Baltimore Housing Authority administering public housing and the HCD which administers the Vacants to Value program).
People may see it as a vacancy problem but it is an economic problem. The only way it can be reverse it is to ge the private sector engaged. There must be a scale and a sequence to intervention. After some catalytic investments non-profits need to fade out and for-profits need to come in. Sean Closkey, TRF  
These words by Sean Closkey were spoken at a presentation at the recent Vacants to Value Conference. They should resonate with the Hogan administration.  One can hope that TRF will advise the MSA.

Baltimore's historic West Baltimore neighborhoods of Harlem Park, Sandtown, and Druid Heights can become beautiful communities once again, provided there is not too much demolition in haste and the attempt to show immediate action. Instead, use the money to build on strength and fund big catalytic transformative projects that create a game changer. The West Baltimore communities can unwrap the plans they created for the areas around the West Baltimore MARC station on lots that don't require the demolition of historic houses.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

updated for minor corrections 1/6/ 9:54h
update for inclusion of source refernce for funding breakdonw: 1/8/16 10:34am