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Razing houses, raising hopes

Baltimore's leaders are to be commended for their efforts to steadily reduce crime, improve student test scores and graduation rates, and lower property taxes. Such steps are absolutely critical to meeting Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's goal of reversing Baltimore's decades-long decline and drawing 10,000 new families to the city over a 10-year period.

Yet even if all those worthy goals are achieved, no outsider — or resident — will think of Baltimore as a truly great metropolis (let alone the "Greatest City on Earth," as those bus benches proclaim) so long as the city is home to thousands upon thousands of vacant houses. As everyone who lives here knows, whole blocks, sometimes very nearly entire neighborhoods, in many of the city's poorer areas are scarred by boarded-up rowhouses that attract vagrants, criminals, vermin — and hopelessness.

That's why last week's announcement by the Rawlings-Blake administration of a major push forward in the Vacants to Value program is like a fresh breeze on a smoggy summer day. It demonstrates that when it comes to the issue of vacant homes, city leaders "get it." They realize that the piecemeal, glacially slow approach of recent years, whereby a few hundred derelict houses are demolished annually, simply isn't good enough for a city in a hurry to take its rightful place among the leaders in the nation's ongoing urban renaissance.

By greatly increasing the amount budgeted for house demolition and adding a portion of the city's settlement money from a national lawsuit against mortgage servicers, Baltimore plans to spend $22 million to tear down 1,500 abandoned houses over 2½ years. If carried out, that would triple the pace of vacant-home demolitions in recent years and for the first time make a serious dent in a seemingly intractable problem. If the work proceeds as planned, nearly 10 percent of the city's approximately 16,000 vacants would be razed in those 2½ years.

Of course, tearing down derelict properties is only the beginning when the ultimate goal is transforming some of Baltimore's most distressed neighborhoods into livable communities. Large-scale razing can carry disturbing echoes of the "urban renewal" efforts of the mid-20th century that sometimes left neighborhoods worse off. Some local critics worry that Baltimore could become another Detroit, which ended up in bankruptcy after large stretches of the city became depopulated, abandoned and denied essential services.

Such fears, however, are misplaced; Baltimore is very different from Detroit and is unlikely to share its fate. Baltimore is geographically much smaller than Detroit; it has a credible long-term plan to manage its finances and thus stave off bankruptcy; it has economic advantages stemming from its location; and it is going about its house demolition program in a more methodical, carefully planned way.

The city owns about 20 percent of the vacant houses here and has been demolishing about 260 a year for the past decade. The stepped-up effort announced last week should allow the city to focus on razing entire blocks of non-viable properties, turning them into gardens or parks in the short term and eventually marketing them for development. Meanwhile, the city will push private owners to rehab or sell vacant properties that are isolated within populated areas.

True, it takes imagination to look at some of the city's target areas in East Baltimore or the Edmondson Avenue corridor and see the potential for future residential, commercial or industrial development. But the city really has no other option but to try. To do nothing would be essentially to accept a state of permanent decay in dozens of once-vibrant neighborhoods, and to those who care about this city, that thought is intolerable.

Even those who have never seen the film "Field of Dreams" know its most famous line: "If you build it, they will come" — a promise that hope, vision and risk-taking are necessary ingredients for success. In this case, to build a future in which "they will come" and help restore this city to greatness, we must start by tearing down that which is holding Baltimore back.

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