Thursday, October 20, 2016

Gameplan for Revitalization

Rarely have a bunch of agency leaders spoken more cogently about the revitalization of Baltimore neighborhoods than at CPHA's event at the University of Baltimore on Wednesday. But rarely was the lack of an actual community representative on the panel more obvious, given the C in the organization's name.
Rehabilitated Houses In Barclay

So in the end, the observation that revitalization of neighborhoods needs to be about people and not just "value" of buildings (as in "Vacants to Value") had to come from the audience. The event was well attended by young and older folks, students and some prominent figures such as Barbara Samuels of the ACLU and Bob Embry of the Abell Foundation.

The forum was part of CPHA's great idea of conducting a series of discussions in which various topics get illuminated and evaluated to then summarize them as a transition document for the new Mayor. Revitalization this week, Inclusionary Housing and Tax Increment Financing were past forums, CitiStat and LinkBus are still to come (See below this article). Jayne Miller from WBAL is usually the moderator, and she, too is great in doing that, well informed and firm in her discussion management.

In Wednesday's forum Tom Stosur explained the Green Network Plan, Julia Day Vacants to Values (V2V) and Carol Gilbert from the State Department of Housing and Community Development explained Project CORE. Council district 9 candidate John Bullock and Delegate Antonio Haynes from the 40th were also panelists, maybe they were the community stand-ins.
Concentration of vacants in the "butterfly wings" with the "white L" in the
center

Stosur showed on the maps the by now familar patterns of the "white L" with the affluent communities in the center of the city along a north south axis and the "black butterfly" in the shape of wings that represent east and west Baltimore's disenfranchised communities. (He did not use those terms, though). He overlaid that map with one showing where the green spaces and parks are and explained that the goal of the green plan is to connect the inner neighborhoods "up to the green infrastructure".

He observed that "most abandoned properties are clustered where there is the least green infrastructure". The hypothesis of the green plan is that strategic green spaces can serve environmental purposes and spur revitalization. Biohabitat is one of the expert consultants. The goal is a "single blueprint as a framework to bring a whole array of partners together." At this point the team is looking at three focus areas, Shipley Hill, Broadway East/ Gay Street Corridor, and Sandtown/Harlem Park. Apparently those areas showed the most potential to deliver on the noted goals. A draft of the plan will be done in March, a complete document in May 2017. That, too is admirable for its speed. Of course, nobody knows who the new Planning Director will be under the new Mayor and if those dates will hold.

Julia Day as a deputy director at City Housing may sit less on a hot seat than her boss Paul Graziano whom all mayoral candidates vowed to replace. She strikes me as very knowledgeable and a good candidate to carry the institutional memory of those things forward that work reasonably well at Housing, such as the by now pretty well calibrated V2V program.

"We are looking for whole block solutions", Day said. "Our preference is preservation". She explained that the department has the right of eminent domain and the power to relocate people but that clearing and relocation cost massive amounts of money and time.
She pointed to the successful neighborhoods that were considered hopeless only a decade back.
Oliver is a positive example, a community that came together under then Mayor O'Malley and after the horrific fire bombing of the Dawson family in Oliver where mother and children perished in the heinous crime. Oliver is a case that shows that community and people must come first along with the goal of rebuilding, not relocation and not demolition. Day also pointed to Broadway. "I bet you" she said, "In two years there won't be a vacant building on Broadway". She added that she is very optimistic about revitalization in Baltimore. She and Stosur agreed that Baltimore is in "a sweet spot" between New York and Washington with a booming Philly to the north.
Demolition on Stricker Street: The preservationists opposed it
(photo: Philipsen)

Carol Gilbert, Assistant Secretary of the State's HCDC who survived the transition from O'Malley to Hogan pointed to the "unprecedented amount of State money" now set aside for neighborhood revitalization. "State and City have a terrific budget to do good things, not just demolition.", Gilbert said. The project is called CORE and had just received 77 applications for use of the funds, many for demolition in favor of future development. Gilbert noted that the State is committed to the highest standards of hazard mitigation when it comes to demolition. Neighbors will get one month notice prior to demolition. Stabilization can also be funded by CORE funds and has also received a good number applications. Gilbert said that at least 10% of the $76 million will be used fro stabilization. The Baltimore Regional Neighborhoods Initiative has a funding commitment of $65 million in five years. The Community Legacy program gets $6 Million.

John Bullock was the only one who spoke about race and class and also noted how important transportation is.. But he also identified as the largest obstacle for revitalization "the market", or better its absence. 
 
Cost played a big role in the discussion. Who can afford rehabilitation, what about people already in the community? In the current economic system the high cost for rehabilitation of vacant and dilapidated rowhouses (somewhere between $120,000 to $250,000, depending on size) is a big obstacle for homeowners and developers alike. Either a subsidy is needed or the value that a building gains after it is fixed up has riesen enough to justify the expense.

As Bob Embry (who was Housing Commissioner when the Dollar House Program was active) pointed out, even if someone gets a house for $1, that person won't get around the cost of renovation. Capital that is hard to come by.
Community celebration in Oliver's Bernard Harris ES
(photo: Kaitlin Newman / Baltimore Sun)

Clearly, neither the City nor the State have the funds to subsidize the renovation of more than 16,000 vacant houses. This leaves only the option to achieve a market in which the cost of renovation and the resulting building value will come into balance, i.e. a market gets created. As Bob Embry remarked, "you cannot invest $200,000 in a house when its neighbor is only worth $10,000."

The Barclay neighborhood with TRF and Telesis as developers have demonstrated how capital can be brought to the table when there is a real strategy. Vacants even in a distressed neighborhood can be drastically reduced and property values be brought up with a plan.

Sean Closkey, President of TRF Redevelopment Partners was not on the panel, but he can explain revitalization better than anybody.  In a workshop at the V2V conference last year he outlined the strategies in very clear language: “People may see [the vacant houses] as a vacancy problem but it is an economic problem. The only way it can be reversed it is to get the private sector engaged. There must be a scale and a sequence to intervention.” He speaks of “catalytic investments” that were made with investment funds and by the non profits in the partnership (TRF raised and invested $65 million in Baltimore), “after which non-profits need to fade out and for-profits need to come in.” He said then: “Don't chase the price. Offer something you don't get elsewhere in the city.” 

But some community members in the audience observed, price matters. Value increase brings affordability issues with it, especially for renters that must be addressed through affordable housing programs, co-ops and community land trusts, solutions that were not presented by the panelists.

Southway Builders' CEO Willy Moore wrapped the discussion up: "success is where there is a plan. The scattershot approach isn't effective".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

CPHA'snext forum will be on improving Baltimore’s nationally recognized CitiStat system. This forum will be held on Wednesday, October 26 from 4pm-6pm. 

Click here to register

The final forum will be on the redesign of Baltimore’s bus system known asBaltimoreLink. We’ll talk about its strengths, weaknesses, and how it can be improved. This forum will be on Wednesday, November 2 from 4pm-6pm.

Click here to register