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Hoping to steer change, neighborhoods knit together

Hoping to steer change, neighborhoods knit together: “I'm so tired of blight.”

Sarah Littlepage has been through this before. "Too many times," she said.

The 62-year-old Union Square resident, whose family has run a furniture store in Southwest Baltimore since 1893, has been to meetings about improving the area, offered feedback on sidewalks and streetlamps, brainstormed ideas when Poppleton and Pigtown were designated Empowerment Zones.

But she's sat out the latest effort, as friends and neighbors have collaborated across traditional neighborhood boundaries to create a new nonprofit and a common vision for the area that can guide it to a future of more people, businesses and jobs, and less crime, drug use and trash.

The group, called the Southwest Partnership, includes Union Square, Hollins Roundhouse, Franklin Square, Pigtown, Mount Clare, Barre Circle and Poppleton. It published a 96-page plan on March 13 that will be submitted to the Planning Commission and expects to hire an executive director soon.

But the organization will have to overcome fatigue informed by past efforts that fizzled, as well as suspicion of institutions that for many years showed their backs to the neighborhoods. Nearly as difficult, they say, they will have to find a way to keep people of diverse backgrounds and different interests pulling together.

"I would love to see things really change," Littlepage said. "I would love to see something really positive come out of all this effort, but you do become jaded after years and years and years of waiting and being involved."

Those involved say they already feel as if the city is paying more attention to an area that has long felt overlooked at best and like a dumping ground at worst.

"I do believe this is the time for us — it's just that we as leaders and as community members have to keep our eyes focused on the goal," said Stacy Smith, co-founder of the Urban Business Center and the newly elected chair of the Southwest Partnership's commercial development committee. "If we do that and put the work at the center of what we do, we can come out with a good process. We can come out with a good product."

The Southwest Partnership formed in 2012, when community members from Union Square reached out to others to form common cause against the relocation of a University of Maryland Medical Center methadone clinic to the area.

The group, representing an area west of Martin Luther King Boulevard, has since widened its scope. They're working with institutions such as Bon Secours Baltimore Health System, the University of Maryland Medical Center, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and its biopark, as well as private biopark developer Wexford Science + Technology. All five, as well as the B&O Railroad Museum, sit on the board.

There's talk of making Carroll Park accessible from the north, instead of blocked by dead-end streets and rail tracks, renovating Hollins Market, cracking down on code violations and paying for improvements with a city financing tool associated with projects like Harbor Point. They want bike paths, improvements on West Baltimore Street and hope to get the area's major employers to contract more with local businesses.

"The greatness of this plan lies in the fact that this was developed by the residents of these communities," said Richard Parker, 37, the president of the Citizens of Pigtown community association and new Southwest Partnership president. "There's greater influence as a partnership, as a coalition of seven communities. There's greater opportunity to ensure that development and redevelopment reaches this part of Baltimore in a way that many people feel it hasn't up to this point."

The need is significant. Of the 11,232 housing units within the Southwest Partnership, about 29 percent are vacant, according to its report. More than a third of the households have incomes less than $25,000; about 27 percent of the population lack a high school diploma.

Littlepage moved to Union Square in 1978, riding an early surge of urban optimism about an area birthed by the B&O Railroad with gracious squares and large old homes, the old stamping ground of intellectuals such as H.L. Mencken, Zora Neale Hurston and Edgar Allan Poe. But urban decay continues to beset the area, she said.

"There are waves of new people who come in and create excitement," she said. But "there are a lot of challenges going way back."

The Goldseker Foundation sees hope among the challenges, so it has granted nearly $200,000 to the Southwest Partnership.

The neighborhoods are close to downtown, with pockets of strength, and they've established a strong group, said Matt Gallagher, the foundation's president. With the interest of anchors such as the University of Maryland, Baltimore, he's optimistic about their chances, he said.

But sustaining common purpose is a delicate balance. Some 7,800 households accounting for nearly 20,000 people live in the Southwest Partnership's domain. Median incomes range from more than $52,000 in one Pigtown ZIP code to less than $16,000 in one in Poppleton. Home values stretch from $26,000 in Franklin Square to $170,000 in Hollins Roundhouse.

The district's boundaries cross Baltimore Street, once a black-white dividing line. While the neighborhoods overall are 72 percent African-American, that can vary from a roughly 50-50 split in one ZIP code to nearly all in others.

On March 21, about two dozen people from Poppleton, the neighborhood closest to the University of Maryland BioPark, attended a meeting to create a community association to represent homeowners and tenants. Establishing the group is key to Southwest Partnership participation, as well as other city lobbying efforts.

At the meeting, Ferris Browner, 68, who is looking at buying in the area, urged residents to be on their guard against displacement.

"I used to live in D.C. They moved African-Americans out," he said. "That cannot happen here. You need a piece of it."

Yvonne Gunn, 67, whose family has lived in the area for nearly 100 years, ran the session like the former high school math teacher she is, calling on hands as people introduced themselves and said what they like about the neighborhood (the architecture, the history, its access to downtown).

She said mistrust and previous disappointments make it harder to get buy-in now. She and others said people are worried about gentrification, but also want change.

"A part of me — I'm so tired of blight," she said. "It's almost like at any cost, please fix this place."

The Southwest Partnership has worked hard to be inclusive and transparent, posting updates on a Facebook page and website. It embraces diversity in its vision statement.

Still, distrust lingers.

Cecil Clarke, 70, is a Gaithersburg-based real estate investor who owns dozens of properties in the area. He said he thinks the Commercial Property and Business Owners Association, which represents firms on West Baltimore Street, has been left out of the process, even though they should have a stake in any plan calling for facade improvements, code enforcement and targeted demolition.

"We want change. We just want it to be inclusive and we want to be at the table," he said. "Even though we think it will do some good ... there is still resistance. There is still suspicion as to what it's all about."

In the meantime, talk has started about the possibility of using $25 million in tax increment financing, or TIF, to help pay for improvements in and around the UMB BioPark, a university initiative to foster a biomedical research business park west of its campus.

The proposal, which typically involves applying property tax revenue generated by new investment toward infrastructure, is included in the partnership plan released March 13. But a TIF was not part of the two years of discussions with the broader community, said people who attended the meetings.

Chris Taylor is a real estate investor who helped launch the Southwest Partnership as the former president of the Union Square neighborhood group. He said he thinks the institutions have not been forthcoming about the TIF and used funding to "co-opt" the Southwest Partnership without responding to substantive requests, such as expanding university police presence.

"It may be good. It may be bad," he said. "Why not talk about it?"

Bif Browning, 46, who served on the partnership's commercial development committee, said if a TIF moves forward to help finance BioPark buildings, the plan gives the Southwest Partnership a seat at the table. He said the group likely would ask for TIF district boundaries that extend into the community, so property taxes generated by a new BioPark building, for example, could be funneled to other areas, such as Hollins Market.

University of Maryland BioPark executive director Jane Shaab said discussions have started but the specifics of a TIF proposal, such as its boundaries, have not been decided. The private firm developing the BioPark, Wexford Science + Technology, declined to comment.

"We're looking at other ways that significant improvements have been able to be funded in other areas of the city," said Shaab, also assistant vice president of economic development for the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The university does not have an agenda, added UMB spokesman Alex Likowski.

"We're supporting the community as they develop their plan for what they want to do," he said.

Joshua Smith, 31, a community activist who has lived in the Southwest Baltimore since 2008, said he is worried that divisions will hurt the Southwest Partnership effort, but remains hopeful.

"There's a lot of different interests, but the beautiful thing about our neighborhood is there are a lot of people willing to work collaboratively to see the neighborhood improve," he said.

Littlepage said she also sees the partnership having some effect, as the neighborhoods gain a greater collective voice.

"Maybe this is going to be the time," she said.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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