Neighborhoods gird for city cuts

Baltimore Sun

Plywood boards scrawled with graffiti cover the doors and windows of more than half the homes in the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. Drug dealers move along the street, lingering on the porches of vacant houses, residents say. Jagged bottles, mangled plastic chairs and broken toys are heaped in a vacant lot.

Two years ago, the city demolished 10 houses on that site with much fanfare. Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano declared at the time that Tivoly Avenue would be the centerpiece of a $3.8 million project to "eliminate vast pockets of blight and allow people to live in a decent place" in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore.

But the project has stalled and now could lose funding altogether.

The project is one of more than a dozen expected to lose funding in a capital budget scheduled for a vote today by the city's Planning Commission. The proposed cuts are harbingers of what many in City Hall warn will be the most painful budget process in recent memory as $127 million must be slashed from the $2.2 billion operating budget. More than $8 million is being cut from the $670 million capital budget, and $2.4 million is being shifted away from some projects.

But City Council representatives question the cuts, which they say disproportionately affect North and Northeast Baltimore. Many of the proposals by Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's office would take funds earmarked for specific projects and make them available for similar projects elsewhere, thereby not reducing the total budget.

"I'm in shock," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello area. "In this budget process, I expect to see cuts, but this is not one of them. These neighborhoods did everything they were supposed to do. There was a commitment made by the city to these neighborhoods."

The mayor said she needed more time to evaluate the projects, most of which were begun during Sheila Dixon's tenure.

"As part of the transition, we had to evaluate the capital budget very quickly," said Rawlings-Blake. "We need as much flexibility as possible to move forward with as many shovel-ready projects as we can."

Rawlings-Blake, who took office Feb. 4 after Dixon's resignation, said she diverted funding from projects that she would like to evaluate more carefully. "The money will be used," she said. "It's just a matter of what projects will be funded."

The capital budget funds demolition, construction and renovation projects. The Planning Commission reviews agency requests for capital funds and meets with the administration before proposing budget recommendations to the Finance Department and then the Board of Estimates. The City Council holds public hearings and is able to trim the budget, but cannot increase spending or add items.

The proposed cuts would halt the expansion and modernization of a recreation center, renovations at three parks and would eliminate a $500,000 fund for charter school maintenance.

At the request of the mayor's office, funds to rehabilitate blighted sections of Pen Lucy, Woodbourne-McCabe and Johnston Square, as well as the Tivoly Avenue area, are being moved to a general pot for the acquisition and demolition of vacant homes.

"It's still possible that [the projects] will get funded," said mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty. "The mayor has to look at the whole city. A lot of these special earmarks that some people got used to are not going to be there."

A $6.5 million plan to purchase and renovate 70 blighted homes in Westport has been postponed, in part because construction has not begun on developer Patrick Turner's planned $1.2 billion waterfront enclave of homes, shops and offices.

Funding has been slashed for the restoration of PS 103, the elementary school attended by Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice. And plans to build a trail joining Cylburn Arboretum and Mount Washington have been delayed, with the hope that federal stimulus funds would cover the cost.

The Walter P. Carter Center, also in Pen Lucy, was one of six renovation projects slated to share $3 million in city bond funds for renovation projects, but the mayor's office asked that it be removed from the list.

The mayor's office also requested that three parks - Wyman Park Dell, Roosevelt in Hampden and Farring Baybrook in Brooklyn - be cut from a group of 10 that will divide a $900,000 pot for upgrades.

In the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood, residents say further delays could be disastrous for the community and that the 40 homes the city has not yet razed are havens for vermin and vice.

"It looks terrible," said Valerie Washington, 46, who lives around the corner from the blighted section. "There will be a sense of relief when this comes down. The older folks will be safe coming out of their houses at night."

For decades, the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. has been the backdrop for tragedy. Ten people died in May 1982 after a candle ignited a blaze in a home that had recently had its electricity shut off, one of the city's deadliest fires in more than 60 years. Numerous shootings and drug-related crimes have occurred on the block, including the fatal shooting of a man in January 2008, about a week after the houses were torn down.

A 2006 master plan for the community calls for the city to buy and demolish houses on the block, along with adjacent sections of Fenwick and Hugo avenues, and replace them with new homes. Residents would be given help to move to other areas.

"This neighborhood is primed to expand its resident base," said Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp. Lake Clifton Park and Lake Montebello provide "some of the best green space of any neighborhood in America."

Some sections of the community have been included in the city's healthy neighborhoods program, which was recently granted federal stimulus money to buy, renovate and sell vacant homes.

While other parts of the neighborhood have flourished, the Tivoly area has languished, said nearby resident and redevelopment consultant Odette T. Ramos. "These homes are not recoverable," she said, gesturing to a house in which a shattered window revealed long curls of paint hanging from the ceiling.

Graziano, the housing commissioner, could not be reached for comment.

As Clarke walked through the neighborhood on a recent afternoon, residents clasped her hands and asked for help finding jobs or dealing with crime.

The city has a responsibility to the neighborhood and its residents, Clarke said.

"They just can't abandon this in the middle of the effort," she said.

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