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As population drops, city must look to D.C.


NOTHING more dramatically underscores Baltimore's two-city existence -- one wealthy, the other destitute -- than the city's current dual residential real estate market.

It's hard to find top-end properties for sale at any price in places like Roland Park, Homeland, Guilford, Mount Washington, Bolton Hill or Ten Hills. The same is true, of course, of anything close to the harbor.

But that is only a small part of the story.

With 4,890 residential properties appearing this week on the multiple list -- and dozens of additional houses being advertised directly by their owners -- the city has a glut of unsold homes. Anyone doubting this should drive around various rowhouse neighborhoods and count the signs.

And that's before the estimated 40,000 vacant houses are considered.

In other words, the city is still losing population, even though some well-to-do suburbanites are bucking that trend.

Unless this decline is reversed, Baltimore's long-term economic future is far from bright.

The city has lost a third of its population since 1950. A further shrinkage seems inevitable: Baltimore is not a magnet for immigrants, traditionally a dynamic force of vitality. Nor is the city a hotbed of economic growth, although the recent addition of several Internet firms could start changing that.

Yet the current predicament is a golden opportunity for Baltimore to do something it has never tried: market its affordable residential real estate throughout the region.

Particularly during the past decade, Baltimore and Washington have been growing closer together. They are not twin cities yet, but they will be in the future.

Tens of thousands of people already commute to work between the two metropolitan areas. Their number is likely to increase substantially in the future.

In this situation, Baltimore holds two trump cards:

Prices for comparable properties here are far lower than in the District of Columbia area. This is particularly true of top-end residences -- despite Baltimore's higher tax rate.

The frequency, cost and reliability of MARC service makes train commuting a viable alternative to using increasingly congested roads. Growing train patronage attests that fact.

Despite these obvious selling points, Baltimore has never made an effort to crack the District of Columbia real estate market.

Some of the hesitancy may be explained by bad experiences that occurred two decades ago, when Washington speculators -- including some high-ranking Reagan administration officials -- bought blocks of slum rowhouses here, expecting to make a killing. Instead, they incurred huge losses and contributed to the decay of already precarious neighborhoods.

Further, many Baltimoreans view Washington-area residents as wealthy outsiders who would drive prices up and have no real interest in the neighborhoods here.

This kind of parochialism is understandable but unfair.

Many Washingtonians who have moved to Baltimore because they found a good home here have become assets to their communities and are active in neighborhood associations. Some have started businesses here and severed their daily links to the nation's capital.

Several neighborhoods close to MARC stops have benefited from buyers who work in the District of Columbia area. They include Bolton Hill, Charles Village, Ridgely's Delight, Federal Hill and Union Square. Certainly those neighborhoods have experienced no adverse effects.

The population and economic dominance of the District of Columbia are likely to grow rapidly in the future. But because D.C. housing prices are so high, people must endure longer and longer commutes, particularly on the Virginia side. They tolerate that punishment because they have flex-time schedules or do not report to their job sites five days a week.

Revolutionary changes in office technology are likely to lead to even more unconventional work arrangements in the future. When that happens, people will be able to choose their neighborhoods according to criteria other than strict proximity to work.

All this makes Baltimore an attractive residential alternative for people in Washington. But few will discover the city's value and charm unless an aggressive marketing effort is started.

Years ago, we tried to sell this idea to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Nothing happened.

Will Mayor Martin O'Malley be equally lethargic? We hope not. Because if he really wants to turn Baltimore around, he will need more investment, new residents and enthusiasm. Otherwise, he will be at the helm of a city that has much to offer but is declining.

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