Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Project CORE, high hopes in the City

The telling moment came when Lieutenant Governor Boyd Rutherford lifted one of the last cards from the stack of audience questions in his hands and read out this question:  "What is the masterplan for Sandtown?" somebody had written on the card. "This is off topic" Rutherford noted, adding "that is not what we are here to talk about. That is a question for the City Planning Department". Then he picked up the next card. The Planning Director remained silent.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford is the MC
(Photo: Philipsen)

The West Baltimore Community Forum took place in the Talon Center of Coppin University where a high powered panel consisting of HCD Secretary Kenneth Holt, the Lieutenant Governor as MC, a representative of the Stadium Authority and Mayor Catherine Pugh provided a progress report on Project CORE (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise), the much touted collaboration between City and State on which many neighborhoods have pinned their recent hopes. State and City had a number of staff leaders sitting in the audience, among them Assistant HCD Secretary Carol Gilbert, City HCD commissioner Braverman and Planning Director Stosur.

Rutherford praised the Stadium Authority's management of demolitions funded by project CORE and the collaboration with the City. (The best practice management of the CORE demolition avoiding dust and pollution will soon become the standard for City demolitions as well said Michael Braverman). Rutherford stressed that the State will not determine in any form what will happen with the properties. This is subject to what communities want or what the City plans. "We believe a better Baltimore will be a better Maryland" Rutherford said. He explained the three phases of CORE
The president of the Sandtown Improvement
Association asks a question
(Photo: Philipsen)

  1. Demolition and stabilization
  2. Residential redevelopment
  3. Commercial redevelopment
The project is a partnership between City and State in which the City provides 25% matching funds. Projects are funded based on applications. 2017 awards totaled $15.86 million for 30 projects.

Mayor Pugh stressed the importance of Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and vowed that the City wants to strengthen them. 968 blight units have been removed since 2016, another 160 units are given to proceed for demolition. The combined programs amount to a total funding of about $700 million, almost 90% of that money is not "new" money, though but includes previously existing statewide programs. Pugh stressed that development opportunities should not be given only to those who come from the outside but also to those who are already part of the community.

And why was the response to the masterplan question so telling? The person who asked about a masterplan probably assumed that spending over $700 million over four years would require some kind of strategic masterplan. A plan that would create positive feedback loops in which the initially funded steps provide ladders of opportunity from which additional steps can be leveraged. But aside from the City Planning Department's Green Network Plan which is currently up for online comments, there is no such strategy or masterplan. Instead projects are awarded based on individual merits, much in the same way as the Casino benefits are distributed or in the same way how the Empowerment Villages had been funded two decades ago and how investment has occurred in disinvested areas for a long time.
CORE display panel (Photo: Philipsen)

The event was well attended, CORE promises business
(Photo: Philipsen)
The Green Network Plan harbors assumes that CORE demolition can assist in making stronger connections between disinvested communities and the existing park system by creating additional open spaces and green corridors. There is a "heat"map showing where the best opportunities for building such a network exist. From it a network plan of green corridors and a node plan with community and nature nodes was developed.

Plans like the Green Network Plan would, indeed, ensure that demolition and stabilization doesn't just occur where it is opportune or where the loudest voices are, but where it can leverage the biggest benefits. The beginnings of housing, retail, transportation and preservation network plans are visible in various departments but they are not obviously tied to CORE (yet). For project CORE to operate in the manner of the Green Network plan, the City would need to finalize its commercial corridor assessments (LINCS), make its Healthy Baltimore 2020 plan geographically specific, strategize Vacants to Value, develop a comprehensive preservation strategy (large parts of West Baltimore are part of a local historic CHAP district) and overlay it with neighborhood strategic plans.  While City officials would certainly maintain that this is precisely what they intend to do, the awards given out in 2016 and 2017 do not show that any of these metrics were systematically applied.
Green Network Plan
Vacant rowhouse that should be demolished but
rehabbed in its end of row corner position
(Photo: Philipsen)
Yesterday at the CORE progress presentation halfway into the four year process, Planning Director Stosur did not speak and strategy was not only not the topic, it was called "off topic". There is still hope, though, that a strategic focus emerges for the last two years of CORE.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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