Selling the land bank

The Baltimore Sun

City Council members said yesterday that they are seeking changes to Mayor Sheila Dixon's proposal to transfer thousands of city-owned properties to a new quasi-governmental agency, as the mayor began a public push for a plan she says is needed to revitalize Baltimore.

The changes, drafted by Councilman William Cole IV and City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, are designed to ensure that property is returned to the city if the new land bank fails, require the head of the new agency to be a city resident and set standards to gauge the agency's success.

Rawlings-Blake said yesterday that she supports those amendments but stopped short of endorsing the land bank concept, indicating that she may seek more amendments to guarantee sufficient oversight and accountability.

"The concept is good, and I think everyone is aware of the problem [of vacant houses], but I think it needs to be tweaked," Rawlings-Blake said. "We need to be sure there is accountability."

Meanwhile in West Baltimore, Dixon launched a public relations campaign to build support for her proposal, which she says will streamline the process small developers face when they attempt to buy and renovate city property.

"There are too many vacant properties not to try bold ideas," said Dixon, speaking before a backdrop of mostly boarded-up rowhouses in the 2100 block of Herbert St. "You might ask yourself, 'Why is she so passionate about this land bank?' I believe it is another solution to transform the city."

City police blocked off the narrow street for about 30 minutes during the mayor's event, which was attended by city officials, developers and a handful of protesters.

The setting was designed to highlight the persistent problem of vacant houses in the city. Of the 39 houses on that block, six are owned by the city, according to property records. Two others are controlled by the federal government. The city owns 10,000 empty houses and lots, mostly in crime-ridden East, West and Northwest Baltimore. City officials estimate that there are 30,000 vacant properties in the city.

Small developers and the head of the city's housing department, Paul T. Graziano, say the process of buying land from the city is unnecessarily long.

However, Rawlings-Blake and Comptroller Joan Pratt have said that Dixon's proposal would strip away too much independent oversight. Land deals would no longer pass through the comptroller's office or the Board of Estimates under the proposed structure.

In an apparent nod to some of her critics, Dixon said that she is open to some changes. "Are there amendments and changes that are being proposed? Yes. Definitely. What we don't want to do is set up an entity that we feel is going to set us up to fail."

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