|A historic shopping center fire is just the latest calamity
The major players are Baltimore Housing and its ever shrinking stock of affordable housing, a criminal developer, HUD, a nationally known, urban planning and design firm, a mega church, once trail blazing shopping center developed by a slumlord turning philanthropist, a not very cooperative shopping center owner, an indicted and convicted mayor living nearby, a gas station, a liquor store and the Baltimore Red Line.
The Uplands, Edmondson Village, Rognell Heights and their shopping center represented in the early 1950s what some would remember the "good old days". The developments were new, they were Baltimore's response to the housing shortage after World War II and an early answer to the lure of the suburbs. Edmondson Village was mostly working/class or middle class white, the yards were neat and the shopping center was constructed by Joseph and Jacob Meyerhoff. It had the same stores as downtown: Hochschild- Kahn, Hess shoes and a variety of others. The local barber shop had a live monkey in a cage. There was a then modern school, a library, a firehouse and lots of greenery.
As the postwar housing policies were not city friendly and they were also deeply racially motivated. The stability of Edmondson Village and the Uplands and the suburban setting were no defense against the cheap housing loans in the suburbs and the white flight that ensued when racial weapons such as blockbusting were employed which played openly on the fear of white homeowners facing black people moving into the area. ( ). Neither did it help that Meyerhoff developed a brand-new Westview shopping center where the new Baltimore Beltway created a new destination a few miles to the west.
Edmondson Village is a twentieth-century creation, a suburban neighborhood built with Baltimore’s basic building block, the rowhouse. Between 1910 and 1930 the area now known as Edmondson Village went from a population of 97 to 8,9911. Prior to the twentieth century, the area was composed of gentlemen country estates, small truck farms, and buildings that served the industry
orsers book about Edmondson Village
located along the Gwynns Falls. (Masterplan)
Between 1955 and 1965, nearly twenty thousand white residents, who saw their secure world changing drastically, were replaced by blacks in search of the American dream. By buying low and selling high, playing on the fears of whites and the needs of African Americans, blockbusters set off a series of events that Orser calls "a collective trauma whose significance for recent American social and cultural history is still insufficiently appreciated and understood." (Orser book summary)The racial composition flipped (now nearly 100% African American), and eventually the 1000 Uplands garden apartments turned into privately owned HUD subsidized low income housing units. In that they tracked precisely the failure of public housing which nationally had begun to cater only to the poorest of the poor and be almost entirely occupied by minorities. When Maryland Properties defaulted on federally backed mortgages and CEO Monte Greenbaum was convicted of skimming HUD funds dedicated to the Uplands into his own pockets throughout the 1990s, the downhill slide became precipitous.
|Uplands was originally a pleasant community
The still upscale adjacent historic single-family home communities of Ten Hills and Hunting Ridge had long complained that Uplands was declining, poorly managed and a drag on their communities. Now with Maryland Properties no longer managing the 1000 Uplands, HUD was set on bringing the Uplands to an end. Soon the community with its hilly and curvy roads, mature trees and solidly built brick apartments was dotted with boarded up empty units, the bane of so many Baltimore neighborhoods. As it is often the case, the decline was neither caused by poor housing design nor by the overall shrinking population, but the result of mismanagement. There were certainly enough families in need of decent affordable housing but the future of the Uplands wasn't based on need but on the policies of HUD and Baltimore Housing and the same forces that shaped housing solutions all across Baltimore, from Lafayette Courts to Hollander Ridge.
HUD clearly didn't want to be stuck with all those units that had fallen into its hands through a foreclosure sale in 2003. At that time only 24 families still lived in the complex. Instead of planning a rehabilitation and revival Baltimore Housing and HUD opted for the bulldozer. Except that the fight who should pay for the demolition went on for years during which the 1000 vacant apartments sat like a menace in the landscape with all the associated squatting, fires and crime.
It can hardly be a surprise that the Edmondson Shopping Center didn't fare well after it had lost 1000 households as customers. Sheila Dixon, Council President and eventually mayor, lived and still lives in Hunting Ridge. She ensured that a Edmondson Village masterplan was created and adopted, that a Giant supermarket was built adjacent to the shopping center, one of the successes against the spreading "food deserts". But the new Giant suffered from a lack of customers just as the rest of the center. The new supermarket never took off. It is still there but plenty of westside families still trek out to the Giant in the County, three miles to the west on Rolling Road, via bus, hack or car, claiming that the prices and quality there is superior. Mayor Dixon had to resign in disgrace and with that the spotlight moved away from the area. Trash blown into the fence of Edmondson High wasn't picked up as often anymore, the traffic signals fell out of sync and the commercial development supposed to replace the defunct gas station and the liquor store next to the Westside skill center never made it beyond a color on the masterplan.
|uplands at the time when it was emptied out
When Baltimore Housing finally owned the site, it cleared it of every single building and every tree, no matter how stately. The only thing still standing is the historic Uplands mansion which thrones over the site, a spooky castle, mothballed and ready to collapse one day. Even the New Psalmist Church was moved out in a land swap and in the hope that a larger clean slate would bring a better future. What had begun in 2003 with 800 units on the 52 acres of the Uplands Apartments complex had expanded to 1,100 units on more than 100 acres, including 38 acres of what used to be the New Psamlist church grounds. It took a court battle to ensure that 175 of the planned 1,100 units will be offered to tenants who had lived in Uplands Apartments; the majority of the set-aside units would be rentals for households earning up to 60 percent of the area's median income. The rest of the units was supposed to be offered for sale, 74 percent of them moderately priced and 26 percent top market price rate. (See here about the market projections at the time).
[The Uplands where] "people with different backgrounds, of different races, and, yes, with different incomes can raise children in decent housing." Mayor Martin O'Malley in 2006 shortly before elected to be GovernorBoston's star architects Goody Clancy were hired to develop a new urbanist masterplan which was even more suburban than the settlement it replaced. The new mantra was homeownership just like in the suburbs. The pseudo historic mini mansions lining the new streets with their brick and stone fronts and vinyl backs and sides were indistinguishable from mass produced suburban developments by production builders.
But after developing maybe a third of the site in this manner, home builder Pennrose and the City ran out of steam, partly due to the financial crisis and partly due to the fact that the demand for clones of suburban buildings in the city with double the tax rate was limited, indeed, the asinine slogan "urban convenience with suburban charm" not withstanding. The fact that the entire infrastructure, roads, pipes, lights and trees had to done from scratch made it a bad deal for the city as well.
Maybe it would have helped if the Red Line would have had the promised stop on US 40 as a glue between Edmondson Village and the Uplands, but as is well known, that bit of good news was snuffed out when Governor O'Malley left office and the new Governor killed the project as soon as he settled into office.
This, then, is the backdrop for the fire-ravaged shopping center and it severely limits the options for moving forward. Vacating, relocating and demolishing has proven time and again as the wrong recipe for revitalization. It reminds of the method of bloodletting as a cure for disease propagated by doctors in medieval times. The people are the blood, the streets, pipes and buildings are the arteries. Without those two elements there is no life in a community, in fact, there is no community at all. For successfully rebuilding communities from scratch on a pile of rubble it takes enormous market pressures and a large influx of people, both things Baltimore sorely lacks. From the Superblock on the westside of downtown to EBDI, from Poppleton to Hollander Ridge and from Uplands to Park Heights the City repeats this failed slash and burn strategy over and over. Each time the remaining residents and businesses, their roots and ties and their historic buildings are removed instead of using this social capital to grow back.
|The new Uplands, a clone of suburbia
A city like Denver with fantastic population growth has a chance to repopulate a large area such as their former Stapleton airport and even there, where there never had been a community in the first place, redevelopment incorporated the characteristics of the former use: Old hangers, control towers and hotels were preserved, the hotels actually never ceased to operate. But in Baltimore new population can only be attracted if the area has strength and offers something the suburbs can't offer. Thus Otterbein, Federal Hill, Canton and lately Highlandtown succeeded, because there was history, waterfront and preservation.
In declining communities the solution is not to remove the few that are left and demolish their homes but to add additional people, ideally of a diverse background in terms of race and class. The reality, however, is that the biggest demand in Baltimore is for affordable housing. As laudable the idea of mixed income and mixed-use communities is, one after the other of the attempts in willing these into existence from scorched earth has failed. Meanwhile Baltimore has created a gigantic deficit in affordable housing. The few new affordable housing developments have no trouble at filling up.
Efforts to stabilize Edmondson Village and its shopping center as outlined in the masterplan are likely much more important than rebuilding all of the Uplands.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA