Steering neighborhoods up


MAYOR Martin O'Malley's new Neighborhood Planning Steering Committee will soon attempt to turn PlanBaltimore!, the city's first comprehensive plan in 30 years, into something more than just another document. But if we don't understand the dynamics of neighborhood change in Baltimore -- why some neighborhoods improve while others stagnate or decline -- this well-intentioned effort is likely to fail.

Some of our recent work on Baltimore neighborhoods may be a useful starting point. We examined the change in sales prices in the city's 193 census tracts between 1990 and 1997. Sale prices are a good indicator of how a neighborhood is valued in the marketplace because buying a house is also buying a bundle of features -- neighborhood schools, safety, the convenience of the location, and other amenities.

Beyond the expected negatives are some surprising positives. Property values in Baltimore fell by 17 percent during this period, a sharp contrast to the surge in property values in other urban areas, fueled by the robust economy. Only 28 census tracts of the 193 had absolute increases in property values.

The good news: on the list of success stories, besides the longstanding bulwarks of Baltimore property values -- Roland Park, Guilford and Mount Washington and the highly touted more recent arrivals, Fells Point and Federal Hill -- are some up-and-comers from the inner city, including parts of Charles North, Franklin Square, Wilson Park and Mount Holly. What's more, the group of persistently distressed neighborhoods that appeared in the 1990s is geographically dispersed, with virtually one such neighborhood in each of the city's four quadrants.

Another positive is that portions of the east side and west side empowerment zones -- for example, part of Sandtown-Winchester and part of Middle East -- show improvement. These areas that have gained value have been the targets of sizable investments of federal funds and leveraged public- and private-sector dollars.

The key question, of course, is what explains the improvements in these neighborhoods. The answer is not going to be simple. These results did not come from extremely low starting property values. Nor can the location of liquor stores or the presence of a good school be solely responsible. Neither does the "flipping" of homes, the practice which has artificially inflated real estate in many low-income areas explain the upswing in values.

But we can put some circumstantial evidence on the table. Several of the distressed neighborhoods on the rise received early-1990s' construction rowhouse units under the federal Nehemiah program, now defunct. But increases in property values -- pre- and post-development -- occurred in only two neighborhoods where a substantial number of units were built: parts of Johnston Square and of Sandtown-Winchester. Since these properties were built in the early 1990s, their initial sales cannot explain the increases in prices in 1997. In other neighborhoods with far fewer newly constructed units or no new construction at all, property values did not increase.

This intriguing pattern suggests that housing development has sparked neighborhood revitalization, as demonstrated in the famous South Bronx redevelopment in New York and in cities throughout the United States. It also suggests that a critical mass of investment may be a catalyst for improvement.

The successes of these neighborhoods have much to teach us. What was the role of neighborhood-based organizations, community development corporations and residents? Does the level of homeownership make a difference? Is there a point of no return for declining neighborhoods? What is the effect of school quality? Of the crime rate?

Answering these and other questions will move us much closer to creating successes in other neighborhoods for the next decade and beyond.

Sandra Newman is interim director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies. Alex Chen is an associate professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program, University of Maryland, College Park. Both have been appointed to the Neighborhood Planning Steering Committee.

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