Over the next few months, city officials plan to quickly knock down more than 100 vacant buildings at two dozen blighted sites in East and West Baltimore using new state money.
The demolitions — happening four times faster than usual — are part of a $94 million plan announced this week by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to knock down about 4,000 vacant properties over four years. The vacants will be replaced with green space, then considered for development using some $600 million in state financing options set aside for Baltimore.
"The blight elimination is a critical first step," said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, whose agency is selecting sites for demolition. "We will work with the community. Is this going to be permanent green space? Is it going to be housing? It's a process that will be ongoing."
Slated for demolition by July 1 are 17 properties in the 500 and 600 blocks of Baker Street, an area that spans West Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester and Druid Heights neighborhoods, 14 properties along Argyle Avenue in nearby Upton, and 11 buildings in the 2000 block of East Biddle Street in East Baltimore, among others.
The first 450 demolitions under the program largely target East and West Baltimore, but some will happen in the Park Heights area in the Northwest. According to city statistics, the city neighborhoods with the highest rates of vacant properties are Greenmount East, Old Town-Middle East, Sandtown-Harlem Park and Upton-Druid Heights.
In each of those areas, one third of the homes are vacant.
Seema D. Iyer, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore who studies the city's demographics, said research shows a neighborhood stops growing when 4 percent of its homes become vacant or abandoned.
Graziano said that he's mindful of concerns about potential gentrification and the leveling of historic buildings. He pointed out that blocks of vacant homes in Sandtown are near blocks still occupied by homeowners.
"Demolition is the last resort, not the first," Graziano said. "This is not a random thing. It's strategic. If I'm a homeowner in this neighborhood, I would be very unhappy if someone did not eliminate the blight."
In Sandtown, where Hogan and Rawlings-Blake announced the new program, many welcomed the demolition, but expressed skepticism about what would replace the vacants.
"They should have been torn down a long time ago," says Antonio McCullough, 50, who lives a block from where the demolition of 21 properties began Tuesday. From his home in the Harvey Johnson Towers, he looks out on buildings crumbling in front of him — the result of years of neglect.
"You look outside and see destruction," he says. "They could fall down at any time. All of them should be torn down."
Residents interviewed this week said they'd like to see any number of projects at the site, including a center for job opportunities, housing for the homeless and a recreation center.
"A park? We don't need a park," said Saadiq Peters, 48, an arabber who lives and works in the area. "We need a temp center to help people get jobs."
Keith McCaskill, 56, a carpenter who lives in the neighborhood, said he wishes the city would have offered to sell the houses to residents for a $1. His old house was the first one officials tore down in Sandtown under the new program.
"They let these houses run down to nothing," he said. "I could have fixed these houses up."
In Sandtown, Graziano said there probably won't be much interest in redeveloping some beyond creating green space. He said city officials tried to lure development to a site on North Stricker Street for years, but failed.
State officials said they are committing $9.8 million in demolition funds to Baltimore in the current budget year. Next year, Hogan plans to increase the budget to $19 million for demolition in Baltimore, followed by an increase to $21 million and then $25 million.
The $600 million in financing opportunities will largely come from existing government programs that will be reserved for the new city effort. About $300 million is from a federal program and $210 million in bonds for affordable housing projects in Baltimore.
Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly's chief budget analyst, said that while much of the financing programs already exist, city and state officials could target the money to more efficiently improve specific neighborhoods.
"Whether it's new or not is not as important as whether the money gets applied intelligently or not," Deschenaux said.
Graziano said city officials are happy with the Republican governor's guarantee of $600 million coming to Baltimore for development.
"It's the commitment of making this money available for Baltimore, instead of somewhere else in the state," Graziano said. "What we said from the beginning is 'Vacants to Value' always contemplated significant demolition. We just didn't have the funding. The governor has definitely stepped up."
Baltimore has thousands of vacant buildings, ranging anywhere from more than 16,000 to more than 46,000 depending on who's counting. Even with the stepped-up rate of demolitions, ridding neighborhoods of blighted houses won't address Baltimore's core problems, said Archana Sharma, an assistant professor with the School of Architecture and Planning at Morgan State.
"Dilapidated housing is not a cause. It's a symptom," she said. "How do you act on the symptom, not the cause?"
Developer David Tufaro of Terra Nova Ventures said he thinks it will be difficult to redevelop in some neighborhoods where demolition is slated to occur.
"It's a supply-and-demand issue," he said. "People are not going to come in and invest unless there's a sense that the neighborhoods are stabilized or improving. Artificial subsidy of them doesn't necessarily solve the problem."
If the green spaces are left undeveloped, Tufaro said, he worried they would turn into lots full of high weeds and litter. "Unless there's money allocated to the maintenance of these green spaces, they can become a negative influence to the neighborhood," he said.
City officials said workers from the Department of Public Works will be tasked with maintaining the green spaces.
The developer of the Shops at Canton Crossing said he believed investors could be lured to sites in poor neighborhoods if the lots cleared are large enough.
"If you just take down one block in one neighborhood, the chances that it will be redeveloped are small," said Neil J. Tucker, a partner at WorkShop Development Inc. "Our belief is if the properties are presented as large parcels for redevelopment, the chances of success are greater."
Michael Barb, an official with Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake who lives in Sandtown, said tearing down the North Stricker Street block is a good starting point.
"You're two blocks away from Harlem Park Elementary School, and you have children walking past this desolate block every day," Barb said. "That obviously is going to affect their psyche."
He said some residents are worried a developer will come in, gentrify the area and push low-income residents out. He said that's a natural fear.
"When we see bulldozers knocking down properties, it is understandable that people are concerned that someone is coming to try and take over," Barb said. "If we take a breath, we will understand why some strategic demolition is going to have a positive impact on the community."