Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Park Heights: 64 vacant acres still waiting

Sheilah Kast of Midday asked me to participate in a show about the rejuvenation of Park Heights together with the Executive Director of Park Heights Renaissance (PHR), Cheo Hurley. Motto: Bold New Heights. (For the podcast click here)

The occasion for this topic on the talk show goes back to June when the SUN had written a nice piece about Park Heights and about the City's Request for Qualifications for a master-developer to take on 64 acres in the middle of the 1,500 acre Park Heights master-plan area. This RFQ caused me to write a blog article titled "Time to learn from failure".
Does a new beginning always have to start with
demolition? Baltimore SUN 2011

Aside from that the word master should be seriously re-thought in a City where the complementary word that comes to mind is slave and not Meister (the German root that alludes to expertise as in master and apprentice), there is much else wrong with the idea of a master-developer who gets a 64 acre blank slate.

What I thought was wrong with the "blank slate approach" I wrote about in the June article. I am kind of glad to see that the City, indeed, didn't find such a master-developer who was ready to take on  an area that is about 30 city blocks large. No surprise, given that this is the most distressed part of Park Heights and not contiguous with any of the areas of strength (it is close to Sinai Hospital, though). Where would the money come from to build in an area that has "no market"?
64 ac redevelopment area targeted by the city since 2009
(RFQ map)

So during the radio show we had this discussion about investments and which one would be strategic. What would be a strategic investment in Park Heights? Where would it be made? More importantly, maybe, do strategic investments require that everyone in a 64 acre area needs to be removed and relocated, and that every structure must be demolished? Aren't there enough large vacant lots to build infill of almost any shape or form?

Relocation and demolition is, according to Cheo Hurley, where a good chunk of the casino money goes that communities including Park Heights receive from gambling revenues. (About $60 million in 30 years according to Hurley).
If demolition and relocation isn't absolutely necessary for redevelopment, then the expense isn't strategic and the money shouldn't be used for that purpose.

One of the bigger goals of Baltimore City is to build a broader tax base. To that end, the Mayor wanted to get 10,000 additional households into the City over ten years. A goal too modest to begin with, and one that won't be achieved anyway, at least not at the current pace when at half-time population gains and losses are balanced at best.

So how does it make sense to demolish units and relocate residents, some even outside the city? How does it make sense to diminish neighborhoods further that have already bled themselves down to the bones?  In't demolition and relocation like setting leeches on them? How does it make sense to actively reduce culture and history and the institutional memory of a community and at the same time fret about gentrification and how the city loses its culture and character? How can all this be called a strategic investment?

I know, some folks in distressed areas are truly desperate to get out, and families with kids who move to opportunity areas will have a better chance to flourish. On an individual scale that makes sense. But fiscally and as a strategy to revitalize Park Heights it doesn't make sense at all, especially not if it uses the Casino community benefits funds. Instead, what should be done is put the money into everything that make residents want to stay and makes the place attractive enough that new folks want to live in the community.
What's left of the commercial core on Park Heights Ave
Baltimore SUN.

To keep people living in Park Heights, clean and green strategies, foreclosure counseling, work-force development and active efforts to connect people and jobs are all important and some are done by PHR.

And when it comes to brick and mortar, supporting existing homeowners and renters should be a priority. Help folks to take care of their homes should go beyond weatherization programs and should include a basic health assessment in which it is determined how much of the poor health-outcomes have directly to do with the poor indoor air quality in substandard housing. Fixing up homes that are occupied by low-income homeowners and help them to create better living conditions and better equity in their homes should be a central tenet of revitalization in all distressed communities as part of wealth creation, given that a home is usually the biggest asset people have. But those programs barely exist.
It is decay and could be beauty: The same type homes are thriving
on Guilford Avenue in Charles North 

To attract new folks to Park Heights it makes little sense to assume one can attract them to the middle of disinvestment surrounded by blight.

Instead, it makes sense to begin at the periphery where stable communities exist, near Druid Hill Park, near the two Metro subway stations of Rogers Avenue and Cold Spring West, and at the northern edges near the County line.

Young folks who look for an active lifestyle may love the proximity of Baltimore's premier park which remains an under-leveraged asset. Others may like proximity to Metro transit. In none of the mentioned areas would one find 64 vacant acres (not even on the Metro parking lots), but a few vacant houses here and there and a good number of vacant lots exist almost everywhere in Park Heights. The small investments of triage in the more stable areas, that is what incrementally adds value and leverages scarce dollars effectively if used for scattered affordable and market rate units.

Many times such infill could be done without subsidies. Maybe the Park Heights Renaissance Gardens elderly housing development on Pimlico Road nearing completion is a good example for such infill, regardless how exactly it was financed.

Renaissance Gardens, new housing for the elderly
(Grimm and Partner )
Healing from the edges eventually would require and support a healthy core, namely a village center with good stores and services.

All these things have been analyzed and laid out in the 2006 overall master-plan and again in 2009 in a assistance program by the Urban Land Institute. But maybe not in sufficient clarity.

Let Poppleton, EBDI and Uplands continue to wait for the magic of the omnipotent master-developer. They have at least strong anchors in the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins to support the effort, or, in the case of the Uplands, strong healthy adjacent neighborhoods such as Edmondson Village, Ten Hills and Hunting Ridge. And yet, all three are still struggling.

All other distressed areas better stop big scale demolition and relocation and protect everyone who is already a resident and figure out how to best attract many new neighbors.

This may sound too simple, I know, real life is more complicated. But fundamentally, I think there is hardly any other way.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Park Heights Masterplan 2006 

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