On a Park Heights block pockmarked by vacants, Shirley Dett's garden stood out on a recent afternoon: trim grass, pink azaleas, her granddaughter playing on the porch while the 75-year-old pulled weeds.
Once a destination for upwardly mobile Jewish and African-American families, today the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood is nearly synonymous with decline, its vacant homes and empty lots the outward scars of decades of depopulation, poverty, drug dealing and violence.
"When I moved around here, it was a beautiful neighborhood," said Dett, a retired caretaker for the elderly who said she's lived in her home since 1967. "Now look at it."
In some ways, the waist-high grass and boarded-up homes Dett pointed to are evidence of the city's progress toward its goals. After years of painstaking property acquisition, the city now stands at a critical crossroads in its most ambitious effort yet — selecting a master developer to lead the redevelopment of nearly 50 acres.
The plan in Park Heights recalls the clear-and-rebuild urban renewal efforts of the 1960s and 1970s. In scale and strategy, it is also similar to the city's large, ongoing redevelopment projects in East Baltimore and Poppleton, but those were fueled by the expectation that powerful, growing university research hospitals would drive demand for new buildings.
The Park Heights neighborhood has many vacant homes but also neighbors keeping nice yards. There are plans for redevelopment of the area. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
In Park Heights, officials must figure out how to nurture change without that kind of economic engine.
"It's been tough. Trust me, for years I've been trying to attract developers here," said Cheo Hurley, executive director of Park Heights Renaissance, a nonprofit that pushes for redevelopment and runs other programs in the neighborhood. "You've got to be a certain development team to be willing to take on this type of challenge. You've got be willing to say 'I'm going to be in this for the long haul.'"
Both the East Baltimore and Poppleton projects have been slow to progress.
In East Baltimore, where the plan was beset by controversy from the start, construction was slow to begin, though momentum has picked up in recent years, as new homes, an office building, hotel and park get underway — with officials crediting Johns Hopkins Hospital for much of the impetus.
In Poppleton, where a 2006 agreement for a 14-acre area close to the University of Maryland BioPark has yet to yield a single building, community groups recently wrote a letter to the developer expressing concern about the lack of progress.
Dett, whose backyard on Lucille Avenue abuts a vacant parcel that is part of the Park Heights redevelopment area and that she calls fertile rat territory, knows the costs of being patient. A participant in planning meetings and volunteer cleanups, she's skeptical of promises.
"They board [houses] up, and then they stay boarded up," Dett said. "We have the mayor and everybody coming down here saying what they're going to do. They need to hurry up."
Six teams submitted qualifications to the city at the end of last month to lead the redevelopment of the first 49 acres.
The Park Heights redevelopment area stretches 62 acres and contains more than 600 properties around the intersection of Park Heights and Woodland avenues, a corner with long history in the drug trade.
The city already owned more than half the properties in 2010, with lots and buildings often picked up through sales connected to unpaid taxes, housing officials said. About a third of them were occupied, and dozens of households, a mix of homeowners and renters, have relocated.
Acquisition today is about 85 percent complete, said Wendi Redfern-Curtis, assistant commissioner at Baltimore Housing. By the end, housing officials expect to have spent about $24 million to buy and demolish the remaining roughly 260 properties — an average of $92,000 a building.
"I think people have underestimated how difficult it is to acquire all the properties … but I'm excited that we have finally amassed enough property that we can start to move," said Otis Rolley, a former city planning director who worked on a 2006 master plan that called for the current effort.
Housing officials and others said the city had few alternatives at its disposal to induce change, given the scope of the problems.
"This is a community that has really cried out for the city support and the investment that they deserve," said Julia Day, deputy commissioner for land resources at Baltimore Housing, whose office leads the acquisition efforts. "When there's that extent and scale of blight, it really requires a massive infusion of capital that only the city can do."
Though Park Heights lacks a Johns Hopkins to create demand for development, officials said other institutions can serve as economic drivers.
Consultants are looking at options for Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness. They would like to see the facility reconfigured so it sees more use in the 10 months that have no live horse races.
Sinai Hospital, part of the Lifebridge Health system and the neighborhood's largest employer, also has been involved in the planning, funding a position at a community development organization to help stabilize adjacent neighborhoods. The hospital also offers incentives to employees who live near its hospitals — though only one worker has used it in Park Heights in the past year.
Park Heights has other assets.
It is close to major transit corridors, including the Jones Falls Expressway, and, thanks to Pimlico, can count on a dedicated stream of state gambling revenue — about $4 million for the area's master plan for the fiscal year that starts in June.
While the area continues to be the site of horrific crimes — including the recent sexual assaults of two elderly women, one of whom later died — there are pockets of strength, with more stable neighborhoods such as Ashburton, Cylburn and Mount Washington nearby.
"It doesn't have Hopkins and that's why … it's going to be key to look to the heritage and history of the area and build from the strengths that that provides, along with Sinai and Pimlico," Day said. "I'm optimistic. … When you look at its periphery, there's real strength there … so with the work being done at the core, I believe it's going to knit it back together."
Some new investment has occurred already.
Since the master plan was approved in 2008, several multimillion-dollar affordable housing developments have opened, and the city has completed renovations to a recreation center, and introduced a Ripken athletic field. Two area schools are part of a first wave of school renovations. And demolition is complete in large parts of the redevelopment area.
"What people don't know is there has been a significant amount of development in Park Heights," Hurley said. "It's just that the amount of blight that was here is so large it's hard to see."
Hurley and others also said the city has benefited from lessons learned in East Baltimore, where he worked before joining Park Heights Renaissance. In Park Heights, the organization and others focused on social services, safety, education and beautification from the start, with plans for real estate coming next.
Baltimore Housing plans to interview applicants this month and make a recommendation to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake by summer's end. The hope is to sign a master developer agreement in November, with construction starting after two or three years.
Many say they are keeping an open mind about what they want to see, though they expect any plan to include housing, as well as other mixed uses. Housing officials also endorsed an idea from community leaders to introduce a library or some other community hub.
"What we don't want is, we don't want contractors or developers coming in and just building properties or houses, making money and then running back out," said George Mitchell, president of Neighborhoods United, an umbrella group for several communities. "We need a contractor that's going to have a vested interest in the community itself."
Mitchell said he is optimistic that that initiative is starting to make progress — and he intends to keep pushing to make sure it continues.