Gov. Larry Hogan has long talked a good game about helping Baltimore — he was doing so even before April's riots — and this week, he finally put the taxpayers' money where his mouth is. His plan to steer nearly $100 million in state and local funding into demolition of blighted houses and another $600 million in incentives for redevelopment has the potential to transform large swaths of the city that might otherwise be left to slowly decay. Knocking down vacant houses isn't by any means the only thing that needs to be done to reverse the toxic economic conditions in many city neighborhoods, but it is a necessary step and one in which the state can play a productive role.
As large a commitment as it is, though, there is no guarantee of success. Long is the list of revitalization efforts in inner city Baltimore that have produced limited results or struggled to win the community's support, ranging from the Rouse-led investment in Sandtown-Winchester to Johns Hopkins' East Baltimore Development Initiative. Mr. Hogan promised $75 million in state funding for demolition over four years. (Another $19 million in funding and administrative services will come from the city, though that won't necessarily represent net new funding over Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's pre-existing commitment to spend $100 million on demolition over 10 years). That represents a substantial increase in the state's investment in blight elimination and will accelerate the city's efforts dramatically, but it needs to be managed carefully to maximize its economic impact and minimize community disruption. It's unclear how much of the $600 million in incentives represents new funding and how much is a repackaging of pre-existing programs, but regardless, it's a sum that could have a real impact — if it is targeted in such a way that it attracts private investment. Here's what the state and city need to do to make sure this effort reaches its potential:
Start with the community
The plan by Governor Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake calls for clearing whole blocks, which makes sense in terms of providing open space and/or opportunities for redevelopment. But it means displacing some residents, a process that is always fraught with difficulties. And the question of which blocks to target and what will become of them after they are cleared must be answered through extensive community engagement. The announcement by the governor and mayor was greeted with some concerns about gentrification, which may not be an immediate threat but is nonetheless a fear that must be taken seriously and addressed.
It sounds good to say that a vacant block is better than one with crumbling houses and the crime that goes with them, but there has to be a plan for maintaining the open space, whether as a pocket park or an empty field. The city's ability to manage the parks and open space it already has is stretched thin as it is. And for those spaces that will eventually be redeveloped, there needs to be a clear plan from the beginning. Once open space is established, people tend to be loath to give it up. Baltimore's Vacants to Value program has occasionally run into controversy when parcels used as community parks or gardens were subsequently offered up for sale. State housing secretary Ken Holt promises this will be a "bottom-up" approach. He and the city will need to make sure that promise, above all others, is kept.
Block-level demolition is generally the province of big construction firms and heavy equipment, but the scale of the governor's investment is likely to dwarf the capacity of the local industry. The Maryland Stadium Authority, which is managing this effort, should explore opportunities for manual deconstruction, which can be comparable in cost to traditional demolition given the ability to recycle materials. It also would produce large numbers of entry-level, low-skill jobs that could be filled by residents of the neighborhoods this program is designed to benefit.
It's already happening in Baltimore. Humanim Inc., an East Baltimore non-profit that does workforce development among other initiatives, has a crew doing deconstruction work under a contract with the city. It takes apart rowhouses brick-by-brick (and has a fascinating blog, baltimorebrickbybrick.com, about the process, the workers and the people who once lived in the houses). They will soon deconstruct their 100th house, salvaging hundreds of thousands of bricks, tens of thousands of square feet of floorboard and lumber and more than 100 marble steps. The workers are helping clear the way for the expansion of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and removing some of the blighted houses visible along the Amtrak route into the city. Most of the workers are ex-offenders, all are residents of impoverished Baltimore neighborhoods, and the work gives them skills and certifications that could help them land other jobs.
Partner with anchor institutions
Even $600 million in loans, grants, tax breaks and other incentives might not be enough to entice private developers to Baltimore's most blighted neighborhoods. But this effort does have natural allies in the form of Baltimore's anchor institutions, which have shown a renewed interest in recent years in helping to spur community redevelopment. The city and state need to look for ways to align their efforts with them in such a way that will encourage private, for-profit development to follow.
Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels is spearheading Homewood Community Partners, a $10 million effort to organize the neighborhoods around the Homewood campus around common development goals, with the hope of attracting several times more money in private investments. And EBDI, the $1.8 billion collaboration to rejuvenate the area around Johns Hopkins Hospital, is finally bearing fruit. University of Maryland-Baltimore president Jay A. Perman is working closely with the Southwest Partnership neighborhood coalition on shared community development priorities while continuing the expansion of the west side biopark and helping lead efforts to revitalize the area around Lexington Market. Morgan State University President David J. Wilson launched the "Morgan Community Mile," a multi-faceted effort to improve the health, safety, economy and educational opportunities in a large swath of Northeast Baltimore. Similar efforts at neighborhood development are underway at other major city institutions.
The state can take two approaches to capitalizing on those efforts. First, it could provide incentives for universities to open satellite buildings in impoverished neighborhoods where the demolition work takes place, as House Speaker Michael E. Busch has suggested. Those facilities would draw people to areas where they might not otherwise go and would offer some comfort to private developers who might otherwise consider those communities unstable. Second, it could focus some of its efforts in neighborhoods where the anchor institutions are already working. While those areas are generally not as blighted as Sandtown-Winchester, where Governor Hogan traveled to announce the initiative, they are still undercapitalized, yet the barrier to attracting private development there is lower.
Don't let this be the last investment in Baltimore
As welcome as the governor's willingness to undertake this initiative may be, it comes six months after his disappointing decision to kill the proposed Red Line light rail project, which not only involved far more money in construction work but also would have had far reaching economic development consequences across a wide swath of the city. The demolition funding and construction incentives still don't get him back to the starting point as far as investment in Baltimore is concerned.
Still looming is Governor Hogan's decision about whether to move forward with the redevelopment of the State Center office complex just west of Midtown. The plan, which dates to the administration of Maryland's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., calls for a massive mixed-use development that would replace the aging state government offices there and add residences and retail to the site, while helping to better connect the Metro and light rail. Escalating maintenance costs for the existing state buildings there call for the state to do something about the antiquated facilities sooner or later, and if Governor Hogan is looking for an opportunity for a transformational project that already has widespread support in the surrounding community, State Center is it.
Governor Hogan was a real estate developer before entering public office, so it's not surprising that he would gravitate to something like Project CORE, an acronym for Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise. But it makes excellent sense as a primary focus of collaboration between the state and city. It aligns with a long-standing effort by the city government to clear blight — one that has accelerated under Mayor Rawlings-Blake's Vacants to Value, to be sure, but which is nonetheless unlikely to fall out of favor with whoever replaces her later this year. And it is something for which it should be easy to build political support in Annapolis. It represents a finite commitment toward a tangible goal, which even conservative lawmakers are likely to favor, rather than an open-ended promise of operating funds to tackle a more abstract problem.
When he announced the initiative, Governor Hogan called himself "a guy on a mission who wants to get things done." In Project CORE, he has found something that can and should get done. We urge his administration to follow through with the same passion he displayed to make sure it gets done well.