Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?


In retrospect, it sounds funny.

In 1964, the Baltimore housing agency spent a good chunk of taxpayers' money on an analysis of the future housing market. Consultants projected that the city would thrive and its population reach 987,000 by 1980.

Which, of course, never happened. As a result of de-industrialization and suburbanization, the city's population took a plunge, declining to 786,775 by 1980.

This downward trend continues. Each year, the city loses some 5,000-7,000 people to the suburbs. At this rate, Baltimore's last resident may be gone in another 104 years.

This hemorrhage coincides with the recessionary collapse of Baltimore's residential and commercial real-estate market. It spells gloom for the city's fiscal prospects.

This year, municipal revenues will register negative growth. And while the picture is expected to improve somewhat later in this decade, the increase is unlikely to keep pace with inflation.

As a result, Baltimore's budgets in the next few years are bound to develop a sizable deficit. This will necessitate cuts in services -- unless the city can get more aid from Annapolis and Washington.

"The bottom line is that we can't close this gap by ourselves," Mayor Schmoke argues.

This is why Mr. Schmoke backs Parris Glendening, the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful. Unlike Ellen Sauerbrey, the GOP candidate, he promises to keep the spigot on.

Regardless of what happens in next month's election, the mayor and the City Council ought to start thinking hard about Baltimore's future options. The questions are obvious: If the population keeps declining, at what point will it bottom out? Or what would be a desirable base population for the city and how can it be sustained?

Answers to these questions affect everything from the number of viable housing units to landmark buildings, such as churches.

As galloping suburbanization continues, what will happen to the historic sanctuaries that are expensive to maintain and may be in locations that are no longer convenient for their congregations?

The move of the New Psalmist Baptist Church from Franklin and Cathedral streets to Uplands, near the Baltimore County line, is a harbinger of things to come. The congregation says it will use two sanctuaries for now, but it probably is only a question of time before the 1847 landmark designed by Robert Cary Long Jr. will become redundant.

For decades, religious buildings have been handed down from one Christian and Jewish denomination to another in the city. But if the middle class is gone, big sanctuaries may no longer find takers. This is particularly true, if many of the 16 inner-city Roman Catholic churches slated for closure or merger actually are phased out, producing a glut.

These are just some of the dilemmas a continuing population decline and exodus to the suburbs will present to the city.

This shrinkage is quite unprecedented in Baltimore's history.

Until recently, a natural progression of sorts prevailed. As families realized their American dream and moved upward, there were always takers for starter homes. If they were not immigrants from foreign lands, they were African-Americans -Z fleeing the South or white Appalachians looking for a better life.

As these waves of newcomers stopped, so did the demand for marginal housing. Much of the current surplus of some 16,000 housing units in the city is due to the city having lost this constantly replenishing transient element.

The population decline has coincided with the mushrooming of "edge cities" like Owings Mills, White Marsh and Columbia. Jobs have moved to the suburbs. According to University of Wisconsin urbanologist Marc V. Levine, the proportion of metropolitan-area residents commuting to Baltimore each day decreased from just under 50 percent in 1970 to under 30 percent in 1990.

Diminished congestion presents a chance for Baltimore to rethink many things. We can, for example, return to two-way traffic on many one-way streets which were created not to make neighborhoods more livable but to help commuters get out of the city faster at nightfall.

I've got a couple of candidates myself. Like Pratt and Lombard streets, outside the central business district.

Smallness can contribute to a nicer Baltimore. We just have to make the right choices.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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