After years of smaller investments aimed at turning around the blighted East Baltimore neighborhood of Johnston Square, city officials and developers unveiled details Tuesday of a major revitalization plan that includes the rehabilitation of 700 mostly dilapidated properties.
A nonprofit group called Johnston Square Partners, made up of a community association, established community redevelopment groups and the local Catholic high school, was formed to tackle the project just east of the Jones Falls Expressway and south of Greenmount Cemetary over the next decade.
City housing officials call it a unique home-grown coalition tackling its own problems, first on a small scale and then with bigger aspirations. The effort will receive assistance in the form of low-cost sales of the land and buildings and some other financial support.
“All those things that occurred in the past were incredibly important parts," said Michael Braverman, commissioner of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. “What they are looking at now is a neighborhood-wide approach to transformative development. Everything that happened was a step along the way.”
This is not the city’s first effort to turn Johnston Square around. In 2011, officials announced a $1.9 million effort to start rehabbing homes there. But this time, the effort will connect with other redevelopment in adjacent areas such as Old Town, Perkins Homes and Somerset, where a public-private partnership has undertaken an $889 million project to revitalize neighborhoods to better connect downtown and the harbor to the Johns Hopkins medical campus.
The neighborhood long has had deep problems from crime, declining population, unemployment and vacant buildings.
Current statistics show a mixed bag, said Cheryl Knott, a project manager at the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance in the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute.
As neighborhoods around Johnston Square revitalize, including Greenmount East and Oliver, violent crime in Johnston Square has been trending down, though it remains above the citywide average. The number of vacant buildings with code violations has remained fairly constant in the last three years. The neighborhood’s median household income was $28,946 in 2016, up a bit from 2011 when it was $26,852, but just half of what it is for the whole city.
The population, which Knott called a major indicator of community health, has plummeted — to 1,906 in 2010 from 4,153 in 1990.
“That said, I personally think there’s a lot of hope and opportunity for Johnston Square,” she said. “Certainly declines in the violent crime will help reduce safety concerns in the area and Johnston Square’s proximity to downtown and Midtown, jobs and various anchor institutions, would make it attractive to anyone looking to invest in the city.”
City officials and those in the coalition aiming to revamp all the properties hope that others see things this way.
Under the plan, officials agreed last fall to sell the properties the city owns or expects to acquire for a discount price to the development group. The group will seek loans and grants to pay for the work in five phases over 10 years.
It will pay the city $2,000 for lots and $6,000 for buildings, renovate them and sell them to low- and moderate-income buyers, who have shown a willingness to buy in neighboring communities, Braverman said.
The goal is to all but eliminate the problem of vacant buildings in the neighborhood, reducing them to as little as 3% from 52%, according to housing officials. The agency expects home values to increase by 150% and homeownership to rise among new area residents and those already there.
There also will be some commercial development and a four-acre community park.
The city has been working toward this effort for years, acquiring 142 properties and clearing nearly 10 acres, at a cost of about $5 million, officials said. The city will invest another $2 million or so to support the project.
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Unlike other neighborhood redevelopment projects, this one should create little displacement of renters or homeowners, moves that have draw heavy criticism from community groups.
Those behind Johnson Square Partners have a history in Baltimore, working in several neighborhoods in East Baltimore. The group is comprised of several community groups including ReBuild Metro, Baltimore Arts Realty Corp., Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development and St. Frances Academy.
Regina Hammond, who bought a home in the neighborhood in 1984, formed a neighborhood association with a band of other dedicated long-time residents. Not unlike other Baltimore neighborhoods, she said they had watched jobs dry up, houses get abandoned, crime jump and people head for the suburbs.
The group mainly wanted to clean up the streets and an area park, a small-ish effort to give residents a nicer environment and kids a place to play.
With the park effort under their belts, she said the group got more ambitious. Called Rebuild Johnston Square, the group enlisted the help of BUILD and ReBuild Metro to rehab some properties. Then they approached the city with their idea to do 700 more.
The organization believes that people who used to live there may return and those who held on will get a better, mixed-income neighborhoods to live in.
“We’ve been busy,” Hammond said. “Step by step, each project we do gives the community a little bit more hope.”