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Steps toward population growth

RentalsBaltimore Development CorporationStephanie Rawlings-Blake

With the city putting together a plan for adding 10,000 families to Baltimore, this is a good time for interested Baltimoreans to weigh in. I'm told that the plan will be driven by the best possible data — a great place to start. But the plan needs to address a critical question: Who is going to want to live here during the next decade?

Some of the trends that are driving Baltimore's nascent revival will prove almost impossible to determine based on the opinions of the city's current population, many of whom live here because of ties to family and friends or because housing is relatively affordable, not because they particularly want to live in a city. Therefore, it may be hard to keep them happy.

More positive news for the city is that lots of people living in the suburbs would prefer to live in a safe, walkable, affordable urban community with good schools. In fact, surveys show that the number of potential city residents is substantial. One national survey shows that up to 48 percent of residents of auto-oriented suburbs would like to live in an ideal, walkable community. (It also shows that 30 percent of city residents would like to move to auto-oriented suburbs.) There is no reason to believe that these desires aren't also the case in the Baltimore metropolitan region. Fortunately, since Baltimore City contains only 22 percent of the region's population, there are more than enough potential residents for communities in the city that offer the right amenities.

Attracting 10,000 or more new families likely comes down to two major pushes: marketing the city to current and potential residents who have a strong desire to live in urban communities even if they need a little improvement; and at the same time, making steady improvements in our neighborhoods. Some people are willing to make sacrifices to live in a less than ideal urban community; many aren't. Most of the city's walkable neighborhoods are full, or at least growing, while the city's less-walkable neighborhoods are generally not growing.

So what should the 10,000-family plan address? Baltimore needs to attract and retain people who want to live in areas where at least the basic necessities are just a few blocks away. This will take a commitment to expanding the city's roster of walkable communities.

One place where walkability is clearly happening is Hamilton/Lauraville. It could happen around Union Square, Upton, Reservoir Hill, Mondawmin, Glen, McElderry Park, Oliver and many other neighborhoods. Many areas along our major arterials could become more like main streets and less like highways. Currently, most of the city isn't up to the walkability standard needed to attract tomorrow's residents. Fortunately, with the help of some conscious policy decisions, big chunks of Baltimore have the potential to get into fighting shape for the 21st century.

Here are some recommendations:

•The city should make community-oriented retail more of a priority. Community retail does much more than create jobs and drive investment; it helps build desirable communities. It is a neighborhood amenity. A proper recognition of its value will drive much more urgent and better-financed efforts from the Rawlings-Blake administration and Baltimore Development Corp. The Department of Housing and Community Development does very little community development. It should do more.

•The Department of Transportation needs to come to the full realization that it is working in a city. The great shift of Americans to autos has, after nearly 100 years, finally played itself out. At this point, it should be clear that moving cars around a city will become only one of many important goals of a city's transportation department. Baltimore's DOT should focus on what it will take to get residents to choose to live car free. Frequent and reliable public transportation in the denser parts of the city is part of the answer. A dedication to the pedestrian environment is also important.

•Good schools are an important part of complete communities. Residents who otherwise enjoy an urban lifestyle will make the difficult decision to leave if their kids can't get a good education in Baltimore. Once parents leave, it may be hard to bring them back as empty nesters.

•The strongest communities have a mix of housing options. This allows people to move around a neighborhood rather than moving out when their housing needs change. We should actively try to add new types of housing in neighborhoods that are all modest rowhouses, or all large wood frame houses, etc. Despite their desirability as an urban housing type, Baltimore probably has enough rowhouses. Because the desire for walkability is even greater among renters and young people (often one in the same), the city should consider how quality apartment buildings can be added to communities that need them. Mixed-use apartment buildings have the advantage of adding modern commercial spaces on the ground floor to an increased density of shoppers living in the apartments above.

•High taxes drive down the value of real estate and therefore stunt redevelopment. Folks already living in Baltimore have high taxes factored into their total housing budget, but moving into or around the city can be cost prohibitive. There is no easy answer here, but progress toward the lower tax rates in the counties would be very helpful — and has in fact begun, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposal to reduce the property tax rate by 50 cents over 10 years. Tax breaks, when necessary, should be available to developers that don't have strong connections to the administration.

Policies intended to keep all current residents happy can never be completely successful. The choice between an urban or suburban lifestyle is unique to each family. And the city will inevitably lose some residents to its suburbs. Rather than sweating every resident lost, we need to remember that Baltimore has the potential to attract a lot more than 10,000 families if it can capitalize on its inherent advantages.

Peter Duvall is community revitalization coordinator for the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. His email is pwduvall@yahoo.com.

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