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Searching for solutions

Travel to a run-down stretch of Ritchie Highway for one answer to the Baltimore region's looming housing shortage. The long-boarded-up shops of Southview Shopping Center in Anne Arundel County are set to give way to homes starting at more than $300,000.

Land alongside the highly commercialized route might seem an odd place for builders to zero in on for new houses. But downtown Baltimore is five miles north, the airport's five miles southwest and Interstate 695 is just a jog away.An Ellicott City developer, seeing the location's potential and hampered by lack of land elsewhere, plans to start site work next year. Sick of the eyesore and the accompanying vagrants and vandals, county officials are welcoming the new homes as a blessing rather than a budgetary curse.

Now would be an ideal time for the region to embrace similar creative strategies - and lots of them, experts say.

Baltimore and its five suburban counties could be facing a shortage of 20,000 homes in four years, a Sun analysis of official job and household forecasts showed. By 2030, the shortfall would reach 100,000 homes. A mismatch of that magnitude could trigger a recession, experts say, or an equally troublesome future where tens of thousands of workers are forced into punishing, hours-long commutes.

But it doesn't have to be so. Land-use professionals, smart-growth proponents, academics and others suggest a variety of ways to avert a head-on collision between solid job growth and increasingly restrictive homebuilding regulations.

Old suburban strip centers, boarded-up city blocks, vast parking lots, empty land around transit stations - all could be transformed into compact housing developments so workers don't have to live far from their jobs, they say. Adding substantially to the supply also could provide more starter houses.

But most of the potential fixes have a common denominator, experts agree: They can't happen without changes to local policies and the political will to make those changes.

'Regulatory regimes'

"There seems to be an assumption that metropolitan growth patterns are the result of a free market," said Robert Puentes, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Nothing can be further from the truth. It's the regulatory regimes in place that are actually causing this development and growth to happen. ... There is a real opportunity to do something different."

County regulations stand in the way of some solutions to the mismatch between employment and housing. If the suburbs are going to take not only the job growth but also the workers, they would need to welcome denser homebuilding in some areas instead of trying to keep it out. That's because, absent rezoning, much of the suburban land where homes are permitted will be used up by 2030, planners say. The counties would also have to plan better so they are not frequently halting development, either with moratoriums or ordinances that block construction near crowded schools.

Other roadblocks are problems borne of poverty and disinvestment. Dilapidated schools. Crime. Abandoned sections of already-developed neighborhoods, sometimes owned by people who can't be tracked down. These are the challenges in Baltimore City - which covets growth after years of decline - and to some extent also in old suburban communities.

None of the various changes would be easy. Attacking blight is expensive. Proposing dense development in the burbs can be politically disastrous. But continuing on the same path also has consequences. Residents need to know where the region is headed if trends continue, said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland, a smart-growth advocacy group.

"One of the things we need to be asking citizens is, `OK, is this what you want?'" she said.

Right now, politicians in the suburbs see few reasons to change the number of homes that can be built - other than to make reductions. Population growth is a budgetary headache, often requiring wider roads, more schools and other expensive infrastructure. It can overtax water supply and sewage treatment. Plus, voters hate it.

The city, on the other hand, seeks growth and has the infrastructure to handle it. But Michael A. Sarbanes, executive director of the Baltimore-based Citizens Planning and Housing Association, says revitalization won't "just happen."

"There's got to be significant investment in those neighborhoods," he said.

Funding solution

Howard County Councilman Guy Guzzone, who like many suburban leaders does not want faster growth in his county, has a solution for the city's redevelopment funding needs: redistribute a portion of state money that is now flowing to the suburbs.

"We have to be willing to forgo some state funding in an effort to allow other jurisdictions - the city, in particular - to absorb more density so we don't have to," he said.

An additional barrier to redevelopment, whether in the city or old suburban communities, is the difficulty of acquiring enough land for even a small subdivision when properties owned by different people have to be pieced together first. Baltimore's solution to this has been government intervention. The city acquires vacant and abandoned homes, frequently by court order, and then attempts to interest rehabbers and builders.

Another growth option would be to rezone old commercial strips so they can become mixed-use centers with dense housing, as Howard County has done along its aging U.S. 1 corridor. This is the sort of development that can sometimes prompt neighbors to raise their voices in support rather than dissent, especially if the strips are largely vacant and blighted, such as Southview Shopping Center in Anne Arundel's Brooklyn Park neighborhood.

"It was inhabited by vagrants, it had had some vandalism, and it really was the community that was insisting that something be done," said Carmen Gilmore, director of marketing and operations for Grayson Development Co., which has plans for 130 townhouse-style "triplexes" there.

The Home Builders Association of Maryland thinks government needs to do more to make that type of redevelopment work on a large scale. The state should upgrade the buildings and improve instruction at aging schools near equally aging strip centers to attract families, said John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the association.

"The state's role is to incentivize the rezoning of those areas by saying, `We will come in, in a serious way, to help improve the schools in these regions,'" Kortecamp said.

Builders also argue for higher-density zoning in low-density areas as another way to fit more homes in the region; large, semirural swaths of the counties require multiple acres for a single house. But rezoning those areas would be hugely unpopular, particularly with the people who moved there to get away from more-crowded neighborhoods.

Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist who calls 3-acre lots a "ridiculous use of land," said that the region's decision to preserve farmland from development should be balanced by the more productive use of urban and suburban land.

"Everywhere I look, I see just error after error after error in terms of land use," said Basu, head of the economic consulting firm Sage Policy Group Inc., which has done studies for builders and local governments.

Increasingly, planners and developers are looking to mass-transit stops as places to cluster denser development - both because that can revitalize old communities and because it's a way to take on more population without the commensurate traffic. Arlington County, Va., which offers what Puentes says is possibly the best example of transit-oriented development in the country, used the Metrorail to turn declining commercial corridors into walkable neighborhoods where people can work, live and shop.

"On our local streets and our arterial streets, we've experienced very little growth in traffic, even though we've accommodated a tremendous amount of additional development, both jobs and residents," said Dennis M. Leach, Arlington's transportation director. "Some of our major streets, we're carrying the same amount of traffic that we carried in the '70s."

There's growing interest in such development in the Baltimore region, though the transit system here pales in comparison with Washington's. Six state-coordinated projects in various stages of planning and construction - mostly planning - dot the city and three counties.

Support for Red Line

Sarbanes believes growth pressures make building the proposed Red Line from Woodlawn in Baltimore County to the Canton area of the city an urgent need. The plans are so uncertain that officials are still discussing whether the line should be light rail or bus rapid transit, but it would cut through areas with a lot of potential for redevelopment, he said.

Another redevelopment opportunity: the vast, sprawling parking lots that surround suburban stores and offices because zoning rules require ample parking spaces.

"If you count both the Baltimore and Washington region, I'm sure it's in the thousands of acres," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in Washington. "These types of development are very wasteful of our land supply and take land that could better be used for mixed-use communities with significantly more housing."

All this assumes the region wants to grow. Cliff Terry, population chairman of the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club, would much prefer to see stabilization "and even eventual reduction." Growth hurts quality of life because it harms the environment, he said.

This argument differs from cries of "not in my backyard" that typically reach a fever pitch when a new subdivision or other development, such as a big-box store, looms. Terry isn't proposing unbalanced growth; he's proposing no growth. He wants the state and counties to stop offering subsidies encouraging businesses to come here or stay here.

But he doesn't know if even this will work.

"That's a real conundrum," Terry said. "Part of the problem is that since the desirability and inevitability of population growth is so close to universally accepted, there has been very little thought or discussion of how to stop it if you wanted to."

Coordinating growth

Another challenge is how to coordinate growth so a region doesn't become a tangled, unbalanced mess. Across the country, with only minor exceptions, land use is controlled by local governments. Counties and municipalities jealously guard that authority, which is why it's rare for states or regional agencies to intervene.

Maryland's Smart Growth laws of 1997, intended to reward local governments for funneling growth to existing communities, haven't had the power that advocates hoped or some counties feared. And the initiative wasn't aimed at increasing housing production but rather at rejuvenating old neighborhoods and preserving green space.

Still, alternatives exist to purely parochial land-use planning.

In the St. Paul-Minneapolis metropolitan area, the seven counties and 183 municipalities that are fully within the region must send their comprehensive land-use plans to the Metropolitan Council every decade for approval. The council, appointed by Minnesota's governor to efficiently use publicly financed systems such as transit and wastewater treatment, has the teeth to request changes.

The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld this power two years ago after a suburb of St. Paul sued rather than make alterations to its plan. Lake Elmo wanted to remain rural; the council thought a town at the juncture of three freeways needed to take its share of growth. The two sides compromised this spring by agreeing on fairly dense development in a small section of the community, said Peter Bell, the council's chairman.

Bell realizes there's a delicate balance between the virtue of efficiency and the virtue of local control. But he believes that his region would have grown much more haphazardly if it had the sort of council of governments that Baltimore and most regions have - powerless when it comes to land use.

"The bottom line is that it has saved this region probably hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.

Massachusetts, where sky-high home prices have driven young workers out, is trying another method to overcome local resistance to growth: It's offering to pay municipalities that play along.

Under the state's incentives, passed in 2004 and last year, any town or city that creates growth districts with fairly dense development - eight to 20 units an acre, depending on the type of housing - gets an immediate state payment of up to $600,000. Later, the state sends $3,000 for every unit built. And if the tax revenue produced isn't enough to cover the cost of educating the children who move in, the state promises to pay the difference.

Five communities have approved growth districts and more than 25 others have expressed interest, said Anthony Flint, Massachusetts' smart-growth education director. That's notable in a state where some towns have stuck with large-lot zoning because they don't believe development pays for itself.

"This was a way to sort of turn that around and make growth a positive," Flint said.

Frequently, growth battles boil down to concern about school crowding and traffic congestion, said Puentes, the Brookings fellow. Clustering development near existing infrastructure and guaranteeing state money to cover other costs "would help break down some of the tremendous resistance," he said.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Anne Arundel County's planning director, agrees that the key problem is funding. Largely because of crowded classrooms, a "significant portion of the county is closed to new subdivision," he said.

"Reality is, there's a lot of restrictions because the state hasn't come through with the funding for schools, roads and other infrastructure, and people are fed up ... and don't see relief coming," Rutter said.

State officials say the money they do allocate isn't peanuts and that affluent counties are well able to cover the rest. James Noonan, director of infrastructure for the state Department of Planning, said Anne Arundel isn't using its school capacity to full effect because it has not redistricted students.

"The latest capital budget for public school construction is over $300 million coming from the state," Noonan said. "The Baltimore metropolitan counties got their fair share."

Anne Arundel, for instance, received $22.7 million for the current fiscal year. All told, four out of every 10 dollars in school construction funding from the state flowed to the region.

'Planning in a vacuum'

A variety of elected leaders from the Baltimore area, presented with The Sun's housing shortage calculations, acknowledged that there isn't enough regional cooperation.

"We ought to be working much more closely. ... We're really doing our planning in a vacuum," said Howard County Councilman Ken Ulman. "The state has got to pull people together and look at this from a regional perspective."

Aris Melissaratos, the state's secretary of business and economic development, agrees that "more integrated planning needs to take place" across Maryland. But he said that sort of change is not within his power, and he doesn't sound confident that it would happen soon.

Meanwhile, the other institution that would seem the most obvious coordinating force - the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, successor to the Regional Planning Council - isn't keen on stepping into the planning and zoning fray. Executive Director Larry Klimovitz has no plans to make the group as active as the council in Minnesota. He's even leery of following the example of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which last year got its member jurisdictions to agree at least in concept to eventual denser zoning to head off future housing shortages.

"I'd feel very uncomfortable doing that," said Klimovitz, who was a director of administration in Harford County before he came to the BMC, the organization of the region's elected executives. "In my mind, local land use and zoning decisions are made where they need to be made, and that's at a local level. I would never look for BMC or any regional organization to pre-empt those local decisions."

Even so, the region has one key advantage: relatively few jurisdictions, making it easier for them to voluntarily collaborate on a comprehensive approach.

Five counties and 14 municipalities have planning and zoning authority. For all intents and purposes, most of the power rests with the counties and Baltimore City. Compare that with New Jersey, which has 566 municipalities, all with their own land-use rules.

The metropolitan area doesn't yet seem to be at that critical point where everyone recognizes the need to do things differently, said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business and civic leadership group. He thinks companies could play a role by speaking up.

"This is an issue that does have impact on business opportunities," Fry said, noting that "a number of companies" have told him lately that housing prices have become a problem.

"As elected officials wrestle with these issues, they have to recognize that business factors have to come into play," he said.

Building consensus

It's never simple to create a groundswell for change, and it's doubly difficult with something as entrenched as land-use planning. Here again, Massachusetts offers an example.

The Boston Foundation, one of the largest community foundations in the country, decided to take on what it saw as the "affordable housing crisis" as its first attempt to create a civic agenda. It feared that high costs were undermining the area's economic competitiveness and that a lack of clearly defined regional leadership would allow the regional problem to fester.

In 2002, it formed a coalition of residents from a wide swath of backgrounds - including business leaders and environmental advocates - who brainstormed ideas, kept the issue in the public eye and suggested specific legislative fixes. And that's how the new homebuilding incentives became law.

"That really had tremendous influence on the legislature," said Barry Bluestone, whose Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University participated by pumping out research on housing prices. "I don't think they would have passed it without this great, broad support because there's a lot of demands on the legislature for funds."

It's possible that a variation of that sort of broad-based campaign has already begun here.

The local council of the Urban Land Institute, 1000 Friends of Maryland and the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education are coordinating an effort to develop "a collective vision" about how the state should grow, region by region. Last month, they brought together 300 local politicians, business people and civic leaders to discuss the fate of Central Maryland - the Baltimore area plus Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Called "Reality Check Plus," this process draws on the same state Department of Planning forecasts The Sun used to conclude that the Baltimore area is facing a steadily worsening housing shortage.

The point was not to question whether the region will have enough homes for its jobs - coordinators only asked participants where the projected growth should go. But they asked groups that are normally at odds over development, and their list of 150 sponsors and supporting organizations shows the same diversity.

'Hope for change'

"Interests of different political groups are beginning to align," said Gerrit Knaap, executive director at the National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education. "If you've got everybody talking ... moving in the same direction, then you've got hope for change."

A common thread at the Central Maryland meeting, held at the Baltimore Convention Center, was how to better balance housing and jobs and cut the commute.

Participants, hunched over maps, pushed around Lego blocks that represented growth. As they searched for solutions, blocks began piling up on a spot representing just 81 square miles, less than 5 percent of the region's land: Baltimore City.

The city could theoretically accommodate tens of thousands of additional residents. Once much larger, it is pockmarked with vacant homes and lots. Its planning department believes there's capacity for 71,000 new units, if builders and residents would only take advantage of the space.

"Send growth to Baltimore" is not a new argument. But change is afoot, said Schmidt-Perkins, the 1000 Friends of Maryland leader. People are beginning to believe it might work, she said.

Said Knaap: "If you're deflecting growth in the suburbs, you're either going to deflect it out or deflect it in. The hope is, you're going to deflect it in."

jamie.smith.hopkins@baltsun.com

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