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Renewal by the book


Comeback Cities should be required reading for all who believe Baltimore can be a community of flourishing neighborhoods and strong commercial centers again. The book by Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio, subtitled A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, talks about Cleveland, Boston and the Bronx borough of New York City, among others. Some of their neighborhoods, with the commitment of people, were transformed from dilapidated, boarded-up houses and vacant lots into communities.

What did they do?

They formed community development corporations (CDCs) and, over 10 to 20 years, rebuilt their neighborhoods. Property values rose and the neighborhoods stabilized.

Today, those cities continue to grow with working class, middle-income and upper-income people scrambling to buy a home there as quickly as one hits the market.

Government must encourage CDCs and faith-based initiatives that have as their mission rebuilding neighborhoods by creating affordable, middle- and upper-income housing and strong neighborhood commercial strips. They, in turn, must find partners such as banks and other financial institutions that will bank on them as they have on downtown developments.

If we build around our assets, the process of Comeback Baltimore will take wings and fly. We must look at our neighborhoods the way visionaries looked at the Inner Harbor, regarded it as an asset and decided it could be an economic engine for downtown Baltimore.

So where are the economic engines in our neighborhoods? In Northwest Baltimore, it's the Pimilico Race Course; in Mondawmin, Druid Heights and Reservoir Hill, it's the Baltimore Zoo and Druid Hill Park; in Southeast Baltimore, it's Patterson Park; in East Baltimore, it's Johns Hopkins University; in Southwest Baltimore, it's the University of Maryland.

In fact, Baltimore has so many assets, including many parks, colleges and universities that can serve as economic engines to the communities that surround them. Our parks are gold mines that could spur development and create parkside addresses.

And what if we inspired our faith-based initiatives to also assume the role, as some have, of community builders? What took the cities in Mr. Grogan's book 15 to 20 years would not take Baltimore as long. The key is empowerment of the community and strategic planned development.

In Boston, Cleveland and the Bronx, the city administrations deeded boarded-up houses and vacant lots to CDCs. It can happen in Baltimore. But it must be planned. And these CDCs must be given ample time to redevelop these neighborhoods without being encumbered by taxes and liens. We should do for the neighborhoods what we have done for downtown development: offer them incentives. Let's call it NIP, for Neighborhood Investment Program.

The NIP would allow the city to transfer ownership of its vacant lots and boarded houses to CDCs and faith-based initiatives and would abate the taxes until the properties were acquired by residents and business owners, thereby returning to the tax rolls market-rate houses and commercial shopping strips.

Let's forgive liens and fines levied against slumlords and owners of boarded-up homes with the stipulation that they transfer them to CDCs or faith-based initiatives so the properties can be restored and returned to the tax rolls.

So let's NIP this decaying of neighborhoods and rebuild on the road to Baltimore becoming the next Comeback City.

Catherine E. Pugh is a member of the Baltimore City Council from the 4th District.

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