Baltimore's program to improve facades mostly helps established areas, so city tries new tack

A new color scheme, repointed brick and new windows — the 12 aging storefronts on this downtrodden West Baltimore block are getting a new lease on life — and hopefully new leases.

The project is a trial balloon for Baltimore’s development agency. Like most U.S. cities, Baltimore has long handed out money, called facade improvement grants, to encourage owners to spruce up buildings enough to keep or attract businesses and customers. The city’s program, however, hasn’t benefited the neighborhoods that could most use the polish.

A quarter of the grants between 2014 and 2017 went to the ZIP code that includes Federal Hill and Pigtown, a review of city records by The Baltimore Sun shows. The biggest beneficiaries of facade grants of up to $7,500 over those years have been in ZIP codes that include downtown, Federal Hill, Fells Point, Hamilton, Highlandtown, Lauraville, Pigtown and Waverly — all neighborhoods with strong civic and business associations.

Officials with the Baltimore Development Corp. say property owners in those areas are more willing to put up the required matching funds to receive the grants.

But on this block of West Baltimore Street, the BDC is spending more on improvements in what is a transitional area where Poppleton meets Hollins Market. The agency already has plans for four more blocks in similar neighborhoods around the city where property owners are unable or unwilling to put up the dollar-for-dollar match for the grants.

“We talked to merchants and there was no way they could afford to do their facades,” said Kimberly Clark, the BDC’s executive vice president. “We thought we could do a whole block and make a difference.”

The cost of such “cluster” grants, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, could amount to more than the program has laid out over a year to individual businesses — the 1000 block of W. Baltimore Street will get $350,000. The city spent approximately $28,000 on the facade program in 2014, $543,000 in 2015 after riots destroyed properties, $214,000 in 2016 and $296,000 in 2017.

The BDC is eyeing similar clusters on stretches of Monument and Howard streets and Frederick and Liberty Heights avenues. Officials have solicited contractors but haven’t signed any deals yet with property owners and declined to identify specific blocks.

The city also wants to include extras such as sidewalk and lighting improvements and extra police patrols. (The BDC has offered to allow businesses citywide to use facade grant money for security cameras and lighting behind their buildings but has had no takers so far.)

With the work underway, the BDC will reimburse the owner of the West Baltimore Street buildings in stages. The owner, Cecil Clarke, who has been investing in West Baltimore buildings for decades, also agreed to invest more money outside and inside the buildings.

The timing is good with all the other development going on in the area from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the development company War Horse Cities, which has begun a mixed-use redevelopment of Hollins Market, Clarke said.

The upgrades already have attracted interest, including from a gym, he said. A beauty salon and pharmacy already operate there.

He praised the city’s approach of focusing on a block at a time.

“It gives added impetus to the change in the neighborhoods,” Clarke said. “If people see a whole block or two at a time it’s more appealing to the prospective tenant and more appealing to the prospective clientele.”

Clarke said he would not have invested so much in the buildings on his own, and certainly would have taken longer. The $350,000 is almost four times what he would have been able to get under the traditional grant program.

He said he wants to give local entrepreneurs and residents opportunities there, though he’d like to attract businesses beyond liquor stores, beauty salons, churches and carry-out stores that dominate in poorer neighborhoods. There is room for other kinds of shops, he said.

“The new approach is beneficial to me and will be beneficial to others,” he said.

Michael Seipp, executive director of the Southwest Partnership, an association that represents seven area neighborhoods, said the BDC’s facade grant program has helped its two commercial strips, including one in Pigtown that had gaps that needed attention.

Tackling a whole block in the languishing W. Baltimore Street corridor could jump start that area, Seipp said. The local business owners association and the partnership are now working on adjacent blocks.

Seipp said once there are good properties to market, the groups can work on attracting “destination points” such as a community theater to bring people from inside and outside the community to visit.

“People will visit and live there because there is something there they want to do,” Seipp said.

Clarke is renovating apartments above his storefronts and another developer already has a project in the works too, Seipp said. Across from Clarke’s block, the city recently renovated a low-income senior apartment complex called Hollins House with a $90,000 federal grant.

“First, you’ve got to get people comfortable. The area has to be vibrant and safe,” Seipp said. “Doing that one building at a time would be difficult.”

David Mukiti, who owns and manages the pharmacy on Clarke’s block, agreed that the renovations are good for business.

While he’s grateful for the investment by the city and support from his landlord, Mukiti said another good use of all those city funds would be helping local business owners buy their own buildings. The city could give them vacant property with a pledge of an investment over time, akin to the city program that gave away homes in the now-thriving Otterbein neighborhood for a dollar to residents in the 1970s.

Not only does the facade improvement money typically go to more established neighborhoods, it also goes to more well-heeled property owners, some who may be recent investors and not as committed to the city, Mukiti said.

“Outsiders don’t feel the pain when things go badly,” said Mukiti, noting the damages he paid to repair after the 2015 riots following Freddie Gray’s death and after several more break-ins. “Also, when you’re renting, you may not want to invest as much in the interior, which the facade program doesn’t pay for. You won’t necessarily pick up trash or report crime.”

Bernard C. “Jack” Young, president of the Baltimore City Council, said he wants the grant funds distributed more equitably. He said city development officials have had difficulty getting some property owners to take public facade improvement money, fearing too many strings are attached. Those in more established neighborhoods have often been the only takers, he said.

While more complicated, tackling entire blocks finally gets some of the money to those left out, he said.

“It’s based on whether they are ready to get it,” Young said. “But if they’re willing, I’ve got a commitment that they will spread the money all over the city.”

Tom Murphy, senior resident fellow for urban development at the Urban Land Institute, agreed that a matching grant program is an easier sell in better-off neighborhoods. But a city can’t just pay for a coat of paint and expect everyone to care and raise up neglected properties, he said.

Murphy, a former mayor of Pittsburgh, said officials there didn’t always require a match when property or business owners couldn’t afford it, but made sure everyone had buy-in. That included other city departments, which provided extra police patrols or lighting as Baltimore proposes. Pittsburgh officials also used their resources to aggressively market specific buildings, attracting a Home Depot and a Whole Foods as well as smaller businesses. They offered small business loans. And places to park.

In about a dozen transitional neighborhoods, they sparked “legitimate” foot traffic to replace crime-related traffic by building a dozen libraries. In one case, they built a food incubator that gave aspiring chefs six months to start their own businesses, attracting people from all over the city who wanted to try the latest fare.

“We created a whole program,” he said. “Why would people go there? We were trying to create a place. Baltimore needs to think about what they need to do to make it work.”

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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