Revitalizing Cities One Neighborhood at a Time

By Jim Brooks

Mr. Brooks has spent the past 26 years as an advocate and policy specialist for cities both in the United States and abroad. His particular areas of expertise include housing, community development, infrastructure, global competitiveness, and civic engagement. He regularly provides information and commentary to news media in all its forms.

Why do new residents choose one city over another or one neighborhood over another? Several factors that are consistent across many research studies include affordable housing, safe and walkable streets, access to employment and mobility networks, options for entertainment and recreation, and the often intangible characteristic known as “buzz.”

The City of Baltimore (population 622,000) has struggled with economic stagnation, population outmigration, and tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned houses. The story of how Charm City is seeking to attract new residents, recapture safe and walkable streets, rebuild abandoned neighborhoods, and catalyze its own urban buzz, is a story about a diverse set of partnerships using a “big tent” model to bring together philanthropies, real estate developers, educational institutions, church congregations, community development stakeholders, business owners, housing advocates, and city officials.

Investments and Partnerships

Baltimore is growing modestly in population by seeking young knowledge workers and demonstrating openness to immigrants. Extensive investments in education and new school construction also are designed to lure families with children. On offer are neighborhoods with solid housing stock, parks and open space, and proximity to jobs and entertainment. The hope is that these assets will have a significant influence on whether Baltimore can achieve the goal of attracting 10,000 new families (some 22,000 individuals) by 2021.

Signature initiatives for the city include the Vacants to Value program to rehabilitate vacant housing and offer home buyer incentives. Part of this program includes the demolition of 4,000 blighted structures meant to leave some land vacant as green space or as adjunct side yards for existing homes or community gardens. The mayor also intends to cut city property taxes by 20 percent (reducing the cost of government in the process) and invest in core infrastructure, including mobility strategies. A partnership with the state will invest $1.1 billion in new public school construction (10-15 buildings) and rehabilitation.

Neighborhood by Neighborhood

The grass roots Southeast Community Organization (SECO) dates to 1971 and the neighborhood opposition to proposed construction of an express highway (Interstate 83). The successful effort to prevent the highway from running through the southeast waterfront was one catalyst that resulted in the creation of what is today known as the Southeast Community Development Corporation (SECDC).

From its inception, SECDC was concerned about investment in community facilities such as neighborhood grocery stores, protection of open space such as Patterson Park, and affordable housing for the diverse and growing number of residents. Operations now include financial and housing counseling services and administration of both the Highlandtown Main Street program and the Arts and Entertainment District.

Integral to the work of SECDC is arts education and production programs organized and supported by Creative Alliance. Also focusing on the Highlandtown neighborhood, the Alliance envisioned a multi-arts center with artist studios, galleries, a theater, sidewalk café, and offices. In 2003, the restored Patterson Movie Theater (The Patterson) was reopened after a successful capital campaign that raised over $3.6 million through State of Maryland smart growth bonds, foundation and private sector dollars, and Congressional appropriations. Today, Creative Alliance delivers engaging cultural experiences through hundreds of events each year – art and film exhibitions, concerts, theater, and classes and workshops for both adults and youth that connect artists to audiences and generate creative ideas.

Launched at the beginning of the 21st century with a boost from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the East Baltimore Development, Inc. (EBDI) seeks to transform 80 acres adjacent to the Johns Hopkins University and Hospital complex into a mixed-income residential neighborhood with roughly 2,200 new and rehabilitated homes, anchored by a university research and development building, commercial space, an elementary school, grocery store, and parkland. While a considerable amount of vacant land still remains where homes were demolished, new senior housing is now in place, as is the Henderson-Hopkins school and the university research center. Despite progress that is slower than desired, Johns Hopkins president Ronald J. Daniels has publicly stated his intention to be a significant player in the city’s revitalization.

The Central Baltimore Partnership (CBP) is newer than EBDI and encompasses an enormous swath of territory extending through ten neighborhoods anchored by the city’s Penn Station, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and the University of Baltimore in the south, and the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus in the north. Within its borders are the Station North Arts District and the Charles North historic district. As with the city’s other coalition of partners,

CBP brings together public, private, and neighborhood interests for a comprehensive community development strategy. Projects already completed include housing at Landbank Lofts and the mixed-use development at Miller’s Court as well as the North Avenue Market. Several other mixed use projects are still in development as is the restoration of the Parkway Theater at North and Charles Streets.

The city government does not want for allies. BRIDGE Maryland, a coalition of 20 diverse church congregations advocating for social justice, drives grass roots efforts to ensure that the region’s poor and disenfranchised have a voice in public decision-making. The University of Maryland BioPark at the West Baltimore medical center campus is an economic development catalyst on formerly vacant land adjacent to the Poppleton neighborhood. Seawall Development, a private company, has made significant investments in mixed-use housing projects including Millers Court (mentioned above) and Union Mill in the Hampden area.

Conclusions

There is considerable room for optimism in the City of Baltimore. Driving around the city, whether in Hampden or along Charles Street or the revitalized 36th Street commercial corridor, there are reminders that the city has good bones. Iconic buildings, broad avenues, and many promising neighborhoods constitute a firm foundation for prosperity and growth. However, challenges remain.

The challenges include a dearth of corporate leaders to coalesce around a shared agenda, few strong and well-capitalized community development financial institutions (CDFIs), the physical barrier of Interstate 83 (which structurally divides the city), polarization along lines of race and class, drug and crime issues, and a lingering problem with capacity inside the city government. A further issue is whether or not the city is effectively coordinating and collaborating with these various community groups to help them achieve their maximum potential. These issues notwithstanding, community partnerships are a formidable force for positive change in Baltimore.

Discussion

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2 Comments

  1. Brian Cotton

    Good article Jim. Your analysis of Baltimore’s approach taps into a molecular approach to improving our cities, I think. Whether it is an urban acupuncture approach (http://www.governing.com/columns/assessments/gov-urban-acupuncture.html) or a small, smart city approach (http://cityminded.org/find-big-opportunities-smart-cities-go-small-10663), making improvements that start at a smaller level, citizen supported and one-step-at-a-time, a one neighborhood at a time perspective is likely to generate more value than the grandiose initiatives that get headlines these days.

    Reply
  2. James Brooks

    Thank you for taking the time to comment. I believe that city leaders can achieve solid traction when working at the neighborhood level. Success can set a foundation for further efforts and nurturing prosperity.

    Reply

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