Old, new questions


SINCE I began writing this column nearly four years ago, I've used the last missive of the year to look ahead at some of the key issues facing Baltimore in the next 12 months, while reflecting back on the previous calendar.

This year, I've also taken a look back at my previous year-end columns, as a way of looking at the city through the first part of the decade.

What I've found is that the French had it only partly right when they postulated that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In Baltimore, a lot has stayed the same, but some things are different.

In December 2001, for example, the first question I raised was whether Mayor Martin O'Malley, then just two years into his term, would run for governor in 2002. He didn't -- and the Democrats proceeded to lose the State House for the first time in 36 years.

Now a key question for the city is whether O'Malley will run for governor in 2006, a question that promises to dominate political discussions and serve as a subtext for much of what happens in 2005.

A quick observation: Business leaders and supporters of Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, who are trying to persuade the mayor not to run because Baltimore is at a critical point and needs his leadership, are glossing over an important point -- Baltimore is always at a critical point. It was at a critical point when former Mayor William Donald Schaefer decided to run for governor in 1986 and when former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decided not to eight years later.

In that first year-end column -- as well as in the next two -- I said key issues included whether the city would continue to make progress in cutting the number of homicides to the mayor's stated goal of 175 a year, and whether financial questions surrounding the city schools would be resolved.

Three years later, those same questions are still pertinent. That was made clear last week, as the city surpassed its 2003 total of 271 homicides and a federal judge ruled that school spending cuts made to reduce a budget deficit were impermissibly harming special education.

And sources for the money for the later stages of the Thornton Commission recommendations for equitable school funding are still unidentified, a victim in part of the lack of legislative consensus over slot machines. The question for 2005 and beyond becomes: What, if anything, will the General Assembly, and the courts, do about the situation? Suffice it to say that the city's homicide numbers and the funding and management of the public schools, key issues for more than a decade, promise to remain at the forefront for years.

Census data have always been a story, especially because the 2000 decennial count showed that Baltimore's population declined by more people than any other city's. But the numbers could be a story of a different sort this year if annual population estimates, which were revised to show that the city's population loss had leveled off, show a gain in residents.

As for what's changed, let's start with the obvious. At the end of 2001, one of the questions for the next year was whether voters would reduce the size of the City Council and change the configuration of the districts. They did -- and this month, 14 council members from single-member districts and at-large President Sheila Dixon were sworn in for a new term. Now it remains to be seen whether smaller will be better.

Also at the end of 2001, a key question was whether plans for the huge East Baltimore redevelopment centered on a biotech park would get off the drawing board. An answer came this week, with the selection of a master developer to oversee the construction of five life sciences buildings, three parking garages and 850 residential units as part of the project's first phase.

For the short term, the question is how many of the nearly 200 households that have to be relocated will be moved and how satisfied those residents will be with the process -- and how many of the hundreds of blighted buildings will be demolished.

For the long term, questions include whether the project will fulfill its goal of creating thousands of jobs, many available to workers with only a high school diploma, and whether it will indeed be the promised mixed-income community, with low, moderate and market-rate housing.

The latter has also become a legal issue in the planned redevelopment of the sprawling, vacant Uplands Apartments complex in southwest -- part of a 1,000-unit project that is the largest new residential development in the city in decades.

It is also a very practical and philosophical issue for the city in 2005 and beyond. As neighborhoods become revitalized, either through government intervention or on their own, to what extent will ways be found to enable poorer residents to remain and benefit from the revival?

Myriad new questions, big and small, spring to mind for the coming year.

What will the University of Maryland's smaller west-side biotech park, rising on former city-owned land across Martin Luther King Boulevard, mean to the Poppleton neighborhood? What will Reservoir Hill look like a year from now? How about the heralded Superblock that links the west-side renaissance to downtown?

What effect will charter schools have on students and on city neighborhoods?

What difference will a new head of the state-run Department of Social Services make? A new federal prosecutor? A new police commissioner?

Whatever else it may be, 2005 should not be boring.

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