City's public housing hailed as a model; U.S. official praises high-rise transformation


Baltimore's transformation of its public housing high-rise sites into communities of lowered density was hailed yesterday as a national model of enlightened policy by Andrew M. Cuomo, the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development.

Cuomo told an overflow crowd of 1,000 public housing officials gathered from across the country for a three-day conference at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, "We're back in the housing business now."

Cuomo pointed to the success of Pleasant View Gardens, the $115 million, 374-unit combination of public housing units, private-sale homes and senior citizen apartments located on the site bounded by Central Avenue and Orleans, Colvin and Fayette streets in East Baltimore. The completed project opened in 1997, two years after the demolition of the Lafayette Courts high-rise.

"It shows what can be done. We know how to do it," Cuomo said. "Let's build communities rather than institutions."

The secretary praised Baltimore's initiative in East Baltimore, where 1950s brick high- rises were imploded and replaced with a low-rise development. "Public housing is a success story today," he said to nods and applause from his audience at the Hope VI conference, a national annual event, whose participants aim to transform severely distressed public housing.

Cuomo said that 1950s and 1960s public housing was too often a failure, a warehousing of people in isolated districts. "When [public housing] has gone bad, it has gone bad in a big way. You can't take a lot of people and put them in a small area," he said.

Cuomo's remarks followed those of Maryland's Democratic senator, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, who told the group that Baltimore was "replacing pockets of isolation with communities of opportunity."

Sarah Richardson, president of Newark's Archbishop Walsh Homes, said Cuomo's remarks gave her hope for her efforts in getting a failing public housing project rebuilt in her hometown. "He didn't save the frosting. He baked the whole cake and then sliced it for us."

Other officials lined up to sing the praises of Baltimore's Pleasant View Gardens. Harold Lucas, HUD's assistant secretary for public and Indian housing, called Pleasant View "a good project and a good job." He noted the cooperation of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III with officials of his agency to ensure that its planning and construction had no hitches.

Not everyone at the conference liked what they heard and saw.

"I have several serious reservations about the replacement houses," said Eleanor Smith, a representative of Concrete Change, a disabled people's advocacy group based in Atlanta. "They are creating new houses with no first-floor downstairs bedrooms and full baths. We are an aging population in this country."

She also questioned the wisdom of building rowhouses with steps in front.

The conference attracted urban policy veterans, such as Edmund N. Bacon, former director of Philadelphia's planning department, who spoke to a seminar.

"What we really need is a policy that gets people to quit escaping from the cities to the suburbs," Bacon said.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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