Summer Sale Extended! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
News Opinion Editorial

Vacant or valuable?

The premise of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s “Vacants to Value” program seems simple enough. Baltimore has about 16,000 vacant properties, and the mayor and her housing department have devised strategies to try to return them to productive use. But a dispute over a pair of lots being used by an urban farming operation in Hampden makes clear that the meanings of the words “vacant” and “value” aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem.

Baltimore Free Farm has had an agreement with the city for the last few years to farm three lots on Ash Street under the Adopt-a-Lot program, an offshoot of Vacants to Value. Under that program, community groups are allowed to take over city-owned vacant parcels for gardens, parks or other uses for free for a set period of time. The group asked to adopt two adjacent lots on Baldwin Street, but the city said no, believing that it might be able to sell them for residential development. The farmers decided to clean them up anyway and eventually started planting on them. From their point of view, they have taken two vacant lots and given them value. And given the Free Farm’s charitable work and its practice of donating fresh produce to the community, it has arguably given them more value than residential development would.

But last month, Baltimore’s Housing Department put the two lots out to bid after a developer expressed an interest in building houses on them. Free Farm volunteers raised money and put in their own bid, and the winner has not yet been determined, but the farm’s supporters argue that the city should have given the lots to the farmers in the first place.

The farm group knew from the beginning that the city wanted to develop those lots. They can’t ask for the rules to be changed after the fact. But the saga does suggest that rethinking of some aspects of Vacants to Value might be in order.

What the Free Farm-ers experience demonstrates is that the Adopt-a-Lot program is all sweat and no equity. They have put in a great deal of effort to clean up trash-strewn, weed-choked eyesores and make them not only attractive but also a productive part of the community. Other groups across the city have done the same thing by creating gardens, parks and playgrounds. Not only was that fact not a consideration in the city’s decision about the ultimate fate of the Baldwin Street lots, it’s entirely possible that the Ash Street lots that the group has been farming with the city’s blessing could be sold as well.

The city does have an arrangement with a local land trust that can, in some circumstances, allow lots to be preserved permanently as open space, but that has happened only rarely so far. Nor does adopting a lot necessarily take it out of the pool of properties that the city could sell. Should that happen, a group like the Baltimore Free Farm could see its efforts to improve a community turned into profits for someone else.

The city does consider factors other than who puts in the highest bid in deciding to whom to sell a Vacants to Value property, including how a proposed use would fit in with established community development plans or whether the city is hoping to assemble a larger parcel for some other use. For example, some lots have been turned into a park at the corner of Federal and Gay streets. But given the scope of Vacants to Value and the mayor’s other efforts to grow the city during the next decade, it may be time for a more holistic assessment of where it makes sense to establish urban farms, open space and parks, and where the city should seek new residential development.

In the meantime, Baltimore needs to better recognize the efforts of the hundreds of community groups that have voluntarily and freely taken responsibility for improving vacant lots. The city should not be able to sell a lot in the middle of a lease, and it needs to make the process for making the “adoption” of a lot permanent more transparent and predictable. After all, redevelopment is not the only way to turn a vacant to value.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • The Iran nuclear agreement will make America and Israel safer

    The Iran nuclear agreement will make America and Israel safer

    In late July, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and the Baltimore Jewish Council issued statements urging Congress to oppose the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran's Nuclear Program.

  • Lieberman: Obama must reveal side deals on Iran nuclear program

    Lieberman: Obama must reveal side deals on Iran nuclear program

    Members of Congress must know more about secret side arrangements between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran before they vote on the proposed nuclear agreement with Tehran. Why won't the Obama administration reveal the topics that the various side deals touch upon?

  • The poster state for climate change

    The poster state for climate change

    With all due respect to Ohio Republicans and their collective affection for the late William McKinley, whose second term in the White House was cut short 114 years ago by an anarchist's bullets, the most important event of President Barack Obama's trip to Alaska was not the return of Mount Denali...

  • Freddie Gray case: Order in the court

    Freddie Gray case: Order in the court

    For the first several days after Freddie Gray's death in April, thousands of Baltimoreans peacefully took to the streets to protest his treatment by police and to demand broader changes in neighborhoods like the one where he lived. Whatever it was that led to the rioting that followed — outside...

  • Trump the Barbarian

    Trump the Barbarian

    Whether he is fielding questions from the press or talking to voters, Donald Trump is consistently comfortable in his own florid skin and flamboyant hair. To the amazement of veteran journalists, political operatives and the other Republican candidates, that is making him a very formidable contender...

  • The Mandel legacy

    The Mandel legacy

    Marvin Mandel passed away on Sunday at the age of 95, but his legacy lives on, not only in his successes as governor but for his willingness to manipulate the legislative process to benefit his circles of friends who were, in turn, quite generous to him. Marylanders should not forget either side...