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News Opinion Editorial

Growing Baltimore

For the first time in decades, Census Bureau data suggest that the population of Washington, D.C., has surpassed that of Baltimore. The District gained more than 13,000 new residents between July 2011 and July 2012, for a total of 632,323. Baltimore's 2012 estimate won't be released for a few months, but unless the city saw remarkable (and heretofore unnoticed) growth during that period, it will have fallen behind. What accounts for Washington's remarkable growth spurt, and are there any lessons in it for Baltimore as it seeks to attract new residents?

Washington officials say their city's rapid population increase resulted from a critical mass of factors that gelled after years in the making. They include, of course, the presence of the federal government, with its many employment opportunities that attract people from across the country, even during times of recession.

But the district's growth was also a result of hard work by city officials to improve essential services such as schools, mass transit and public safety. At the same time, the city has been aggressive in its use of tax breaks for developers to spur the creation of amenities like supermarkets, entertainment venues and shopping districts that make the city a pleasant place to live and work.

To take just one example, Washington owes much to an influx of younger residents, many of whom are former students at area colleges and universities who decided to stick around after graduation. One of the biggest draws for these youthful urban dwellers? The fact that they can easily get around even if they don't own a car. The city has seen a significant expansion of designated bike lanes and local bike- and car-sharing operations.

Though the Metro subway and bus system has come in for criticism over safety and reliability issues, it covers huge swaths of the city and has proved a potent engine of economic development. In particular, it has enabled young people to use sweat equity to transform once-marginal neighborhoods into vibrant, ethnically and economically diverse communities that are easily accessible by public transportation.

Given Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's ambitious goal of attracting 10,000 new families to the city over the coming decade, officials here have already laid plans to emulate Washington's success. The mayor's growth agenda centers around improving public safety and public education, strengthening neighborhoods by eliminating blight and vacant houses, increasing investment by lowering homeowner property taxes and making Baltimore a reliable partner for businesses and institutions that create jobs. Time will tell whether her efforts in those areas will be sufficient, but they are certainly the right priorities to spur growth.

One of the mayor's most promising initiatives is the "Vacants to Value" program, which offers financial incentives for prospective homeowners to buy properties in neighborhoods the city has already begun shoring up by renovating vacant buildings and removing blight. The idea is to use developer tax credits to create neighborhood "clusters" of new housing units that in turn will attract new residents, shops and businesses to the area. At the same time, the city's Department of Housing and Community Development has begun to crack down on absentee landlords who allow their properties to decay. Such projects are under way in the Oliver, Barclay, Sandtown-Winchester and Patterson North communities, and officials hope to create more as the economy picks up.

Meanwhile, Baltimore's downtown is among the city's fastest-growing and most vibrant residential neighborhoods, thanks in part to tax credits that encourage developers to convert unused commercial office space into new housing units. Officials are hoping the tempo of redevelopment will pick up when construction begins on the long-delayed Lexington Square "Superblock" project and when the city's new arts district around the Bromo-Seltzer tower starts humming. Though it's hard to draw exact comparisons, one of the secrets of Washington's resurgence was that such clusters of change were happening all across town at the same time, creating a sense among prospective newcomers of a city on the move.

Every city is different, of course, and as the nation's capital Washington will always have some advantages Baltimore can't match. But we can play to our strengths. The harbor will only increase in importance as a draw for people with the means to live there. The downtown circulator buses have made it easier to get around. And unlike Washington, the city has wonderful old ethnic neighborhoods still waiting to be rediscovered. With crime down and the schools getting better, Baltimore is poised to start growing again. Under wise leadership, there's no reason the city should resign itself to a future of perpetual decline.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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