Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What SRB did right

Pundits, bloggers and the always angry have long decided that Stephanie Rawlings Blake was an ineffective mayor heaping snide comments on her perpetual inability of emotional connection.

Now that those folks can be certain that there will be a new Mayor come fall, it is time to find out what SRB did right.

These are the things the new Mayor should continue:

  • The goal of growing the City by 10,00 households over ten years.
While it isn't clear if there was any net gain in households and residents since the goal was proclaimed, the goal is right.
Certain demographics, namely millennials, are clearly flocking to the City. The population loss has at least been staved off even in difficult times.
Most importantly: The Mayor has not settled with presiding over shrinkage and decay but set a clear expectation. Every department in her administration has been put on notice that whatever they do it needs support population growth. That is a pretty good direction!

Growing the City is the closest things to a silver bullet for most of its ills: It adds tax revenue and resources, it fills vacant structures, it revitalizes retail and allows new stores to open and it adds voices who demand services and excellence from the administration. The new Mayor should absolutely double down on this goal.

  • The $1 billion program to improve Baltimore's schools
The 2013 Baltimore City Public Schools Construction and Revitalization Act was an important step towards getting a handle on dilapidated and disinvested schools. The administration of the vast school system has not been always smooth, the transition from Superintendent Alonso to Thornton not easy, even the process of the physical transformation administered through the Maryland Stadium Authority had its setbacks when the initial cost estimates were deemed too low and the number of schools to be rehabbed was scaled back. Recent adjustments to the State funding formula result in losses of school support which are difficult to absorb. Still, the initially citizen-led initiative to lobby Annapolis for unprecedented school funding was effectively supported by the Mayor and the program should be seen through as planned.

  • Vacants to Value
Like the schools program, V2V can be seen as a tool to achieve the 10,000 new family goal. Five years in the making, V2V has taken on the huge task of reducing the number of vacant houses, estimated to number anywhere between 16,000 and 40,000. The Abel report, issued on occasion of the 5th anniversary of the program, found that vacants have not been significantly reduced even though thousands have been demolished and thousands have been rehabbed. The reason is continued flight out of the city especially from very disinvested neighborhoods. But even the critical Abel report admits that progress has been made in areas such as Barclay. All mayoral candidates seem to agree that they want to get rid of Housing Commissioner Graziano. However, they should not throw the baby out with the bathwater: At Housing there is now a really good body of knowledge and practice how to deal with the pesky issue of abandoned properties, tax liens, finding investors and neighborhood development. The program should be further refined and be made more efficient, but it must continue and the Governor should be taken by his word to support it with State funds. 

  • The Baltimore Circulator
Yes, true, SRB inherited the project in 2010, it was not her idea, but she ran with it, implemented it as planned, and expanded it several times, plus she added the water taxi connector service. All these services are very popular in Baltimore. Downtown Partnership Kirby Fowler calls the service "a gateway drug to transit". The system was designed to be self-supporting through parking tax surcharges and private donations; it now runs a significant and growing deficit. The new Mayor should stabilize the service and ensure that it does not drain the General Fund by assessing contributions from those who benefit the most from the service. 

There would be more good things to mention such as the controversial plan to close, build and revive recreation centers, the fight for pension reform that significantly improved Baltimore's financial standing, her reduction of property taxes, and her Youth Works summer jobs program.

Political leadership on the local level is one of the key ingredients towards success. Good mayors have been able to turn cities around, even if they were in dire conditions or make their already successful cities national leaders in innovation. Examples abound around the country, from Pittsburgh, Chattanooga and Charlotte to Salt Lake City and Denver. But no leader starts from scratch, each successor must build on what worked before and expand on the successes of his predessor.  

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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