In one classroom of the Baltimore Design School, Roland Park resident Phil Spevak of the Baltimore Broadband Coalition wore a piece of coaxial cable around his neck as he led the workshop Internet For All and urged people to push providers for better high speed, low-cost Internet service.
In the school's media room, Greater Homewood Community Revitalization Coordinator Peter Duvall, of Old Goucher, and Laurie Feinberg, of Oakenshawe, chief of comprehensive planning for the city's Planning Department, were among the panelists leading a workshop on how to improve Greenmount Avenue, York Road and other commercial corridors in the city. The city is studying how to improve Greenmount, a study that Greater Homewood requested,
In another classroom, Steve Gondol of Live Baltimore was showing a list of the 20 most popular neighborhoods — many of them in North Baltimore, according to a recent survey by the organization that promotes the city as a good place to live.
And in the cafeteria, Karen Stokes of Oakenshawe, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp., was telling the audience, "We have power in this room. It's all about how we use it."
The occasion was Saturday's annual Neighborhood Institute, sponsored by Charles Village-based Greater Homewood, whose mission is to help build and strengthen communities in north and central Baltimore. Greater Homewood, which is changing its name to Strong City Baltimore, organized 34 workshops for 310 registered attendees at the design school located in the Greenmount West neighborhood. Other workshops ranged from how to nurture community gardens to how to use city code enforcement to combat blight.
There was heartening news for North Baltimore in the Live Baltimore workshop, Bringing Families to Baltimore. As part of the organization's "Way to Stay" family retention program, it surveyed focus groups to identify 20 "Five Star Family Neighborhoods," based on criteria such as affordability, quality of zoned schools, how much room there is for growth and how family-friendly a neighborhood is.
Twelve of the Five Star neighborhoods were in North Baltimore, including Abell, Keswick, Medfield, Barclay, Evesham Park, Lake Evesham, Mid-Govans, Belvedere, Lake Walker, Harwood, Charles Village and Homeland., said Gondol, Live Baltimore's executive director, who led the workshop. And he said as a result of the ratings, people who use the Live Baltimore website are searching for more information about the 20 neighborhoods and the schools around them.
"We're seeing a lot of interest from outside the city," Gondol said.
The workshop Great Corridors, Great Communities focused on Greenmount Avenue south of 29th Street as an example of efforts to improve corridors citywide. The workshop did not address the stretch of Greenmount north of 29th, because the group Waverly Main Street has its own plans for that stretch of Greenmount, where most of the corridor's retail businesses are concentrated.
Panel moderator Leon Pinkett, assistant deputy mayor in the Office of Economic and Neighborhood Development, spoke of the need for city agencies to work with neighborhoods to help make their communities and corridor cleaner, safer and more aesthetically inviting, and to reach consensus on an overall vision for the corridors.
Duvall, community revitalization coordinator for Greater Homewood, said some of the city's major corridors don't reflect the investments made in the communities along the corridors and that many corridors are hamstrung by traffic that is too fast for the "built environment."
Feinberg stressed the need to make developments along corridors compatible with the needs and aesthetics of the communities. Another panelist, Valorie LaCour, chief of transportation planning for the city, cited the need for a "complete streets" policy to make corridors more walkable and transit-oriented.
"It's about making connections from neighborhood to neighborhood," Pinkett said. "It's sometimes like a shotgun marriage. You've got to make it happen to restore these corridors to really reflect the communities around them."
Connections of a different kind — the Internet kind — are important to Spevak, former president of the Roland Park Civic League and co-organizer of the Baltimore Broadband Coalition of 14 North Baltimore communities that started a campaign for better online access.
Spevak believes it's important to foster a competitive market for broadband by convincing providers it is worth their investment to lay fiber optic cable in the city that would give residents high gigabit speeds. The only broadband provider currently is Comcast, whose fastest Internet speed in Baltimore is one third of what it is in Annapolis, where competition exists, Spevak wrote in a recent commentary for The Sun.
A recent coalition survey found that 95 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with their Internet service.
"The issue resonates," Spevak said at his workshop for the Neighborhood Institute. He urged people to join the coalition at http://www.baltimorebroadeband.org, and advocated a small pilot program.
"We pay more for the services we get and our choices are less than in other areas," he said, noting that at least one provider that he would not name has expressed interest in coming in to "wire" the Roland Park area, where most of the interest so far has been.
But he also said the city government must get involved in pressing providers to pay more attention to the city.
"I don't think progress will happen without the city facilitating it," he said.