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Demolition of derelict buildings gets slow start


Eight months after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke vowed an aggressive campaign to rid Baltimore of the worst of thousands of abandoned, deteriorating homes, only 14 have been knocked down.

Another thousand dilapidated houses have been declared vacant since an outraged Mayor Schmoke warned landlords in October to fix their properties or the city would demolish them.

While the Housing Department struggled to line up wrecking crews and give property owners due notice, the city's official inventory of vacant homes climbed from 7,500 last fall to 8,500 today.

Top housing officials promoted the campaign repeatedly at community meetings for months even as they knew of the delays.

Today, despite the past rate of less than two demolitions a month, Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III optimistically maintains that he will tear down 400 by the end of the year.

Critics on the City Council pointed out that a pair of ballyhooed auctionsfailed to put many vacant properties back on the tax rolls and questioned efforts to combat blight in older neighborhoods.

"Nothing's changed, and it's getting worse," complained City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, who represents the 2nd District on the east side. "There are a lot of promises that are unkept, and there are more and more vacant homes."

Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, who represents West Baltimore's 4th District, said, "I don't think that it should ever have been put out as apanacea. I think it's very appealing to a lot of people on first blush because they're so frustrated with these vacant houses. But I'm concerned that after the demolition takes place, you have another vacant lot."

Mr. Henson said 50 additional vacant properties were demolished under other programs in recent months and 200 are awaiting razing. Nevertheless, he conceded that the most ambitious effort has gotten off to a slow start.

He blamed the holdup partly on the lengthy legal notification of owners before the city can tear down a privately owned property. The delays were exacerbated by difficulties with hiring private wrecking crews because there are a limited number of qualified contractors in Baltimore and the bidding process can take six to eight months, he said.

"Let's just say I'm impatient, and communities are impatient, and it's taken longer than I would like it to," Mr. Henson said.

He promised that communities will "see the pace quicken" within the next month as the city takes on the demolition work with its own crews.

The focus of the program, never tried before on a citywide scale, is the growing collection of once-elegant houses that are crumbling in Harlem Park, Sandtown, Walbrook, Oliver, Pen Lucy and elsewhere in the city.

In December, the Housing Department launched the new program by leveling three abandoned homes that had become notorious drug hangouts in the 2800 block of Walbrook Ave. Mr. Henson, who briefed the City Council that day, said he had a $500,000 budget and would level 250 houses in 1995.

By the time the council began budget deliberations earlier this month, Mr. Henson had upped the goal to tearing down 400 vacant houses by year's end.

Housing officials also made plans to pump another $500,000 into each of the city's three demolition programs, now funded at about $1.9 million.

After the flurry of activity in December, however, the program designed to be the most far-reaching of them all faltered.

While he has been telling community associations to come up with lists of long-vacant, unsafe houses, Mr. Henson says he was frustrated by the drawn-out process to hire contractors and rent cranes. As a result, the city now has decided to train its own crews and buy a large, 50-ton crane for the demolition work.

Mayor Schmoke also attributed the slow start to creating redevelopment plans for lots. Housing officials are working closely with communities to pick the most unsalvageable buildings and replace them with a garden, playground or parking lot, he said.

"We wanted to make sure when we demolish a home there would be another use," Mr. Schmoke said. "We didn't want to end up with just an empty lot."

Yet that is exactly what happened after the city demolished the 1400 block of Traction St. On a sunny December afternoon, an exuberant Mayor Schmoke cheered with community leaders as the seven tiny frame homes collapsed to the ground.

Six months later, the vacant alley homes are gone. But now there is a vacant lot strewn with broken bottles and rotting trash.

"They haven't done a thing since. It's a mess back there," said Mary Bynum, who lives in a neatly kept rowhouse at the corner of the alley.

A few blocks away, the demolition program had a more successful ending. William Scott, still an avid gardener at age 73, didn't wait long for the dust to clear after the city knocked down 1508 Retreat St. He's now watering rows of string beans, sweet potatoes and leafy greens that are flourishing in the place of the vacant home.

Leaning over the fence of his garden, he recalled the days when he was planting next to a vacant house that had become a "junk dump."

After growing up on a farm, he said, he enjoys working in the garden each day and giving away vegetables to the older people in the community.

"You know," he said with a grin, "if you sit down, you go away."

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