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Reverse Baltimore's population slide: Green more city neighborhoods

Reverse Baltimore's population slide: Green more city neighborhoods
Neighbors and friends along the 1800 block of West Saratoga Street gather to look over new plantings in Kirby Lane Park. Space for the park opened up after four rowhouses were demolished. (Baltimore Sun)

Demolition seems to be Larry Hogan’s top priority when it comes to Baltimore; he gets a real kick out of it, too. The Maryland governor put on a hard hat the other day and got behind the controls of a CASE excavator to knock down an abandoned rowhouse.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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But, as Miss Peggy Lee famously asked in song, “Is that all there is?”

When old rowhouses beyond repair finally come down, what’s next? And where’s the state help in financing the what-next, whatever the what-next is?

A few months ago, I watched the demolition of deteriorated rowhouses in West Baltimore, just a couple of blocks from where the Red Line would have passed (and connected to the nearby MARC station) had Hogan not killed that light-rail project in 2015. Those rowhouses might have been worth saving had the Red Line become a reality. But when there’s nothing going on nearby — either a new project or one on the drawing board — preserving vacants becomes a tougher sell, and we end up with vacant lots.

That’s the case in many sprawling sections of Baltimore, east and west, and thus the temptation to think of demolition as the answer: Tear it down because it’s been neglected for so long, and because there’s no sign of anything good coming to this neighborhood any time soon.

Of course, that’s not the answer, and, fortunately, not how we do things here. Many old homes can still be stabilized for future renovation. And the city has been doing that — with some of the money from Hogan’s Project CORE — before selling properties to developers and builders.

But all that takes time, especially in long-neglected neighborhoods. Three goals for Baltimore’s future — more conversions of vacant homes to occupied homes, more conversions of renters to home-owners, and new investment that builds on both — will in many places take years to realize.

So what should the city do for those neighborhoods in the meantime? What should be done with the thousands of vacant lots that result from demolition?

One answer — maybe the best answer — is green, and not some Potemkin village green, but green in a grand scheme like the one the Baltimore Planning Commission adopted last fall. It’s called the Baltimore Green Network — a smart, holistic plan informed by more than 600 citizens who took part in a series of community meetings. The idea is to bring trees and other leafy life to green-deprived neighborhoods, and to better connect neighborhoods and city parks through green corridors and bike trails.

There’s a lot of this happening already, here and there, throughout the city. On Thursday, I met Donald Quarles, a longtime resident of West Saratoga Street, and his merry band of neighbors and friends working on creating Kirby Lane Park where rowhouses once stood. The plan calls for a serenity garden, playground and community barbecue area to go with the horseshoe pit already in place.

The Baltimore Green Network would incorporate neighborhood efforts like that with grander designs.

It focuses, for starters, on making four areas — from Druid Heights on the west side to South Clifton Park on the east — greener and healthier and more attractive to prospective investors and home buyers. At the same time, planners list housing affordability as a priority, recommending that the city “ensure that neighborhoods where new green amenities are developed remain affordable for all income levels.” Residents in those areas said they wanted to see new development integrated with long-term greening. They also want green spaces well-maintained so that they do not become new sources of blight.

Given population trends, greening neglected neighborhoods makes sense. Put a leafy park where there’s now a vacant lot and you’ve primed a neighborhood for new development around its edges. It won’t happen overnight. It might not happen in a year, or even five years. But in time, trees mature beautifully and take the sad out of a sad, old neighborhood. The green becomes an asset.

It’s ironic that I mention the Baltimore Green Network this week because one of its pilot projects, a proposed new park in Druid Heights named after Cab Calloway, has run into some opposition, though not from the immediate community that would benefit most. Creating the park, or Cab Calloway Square, would include tearing down the rowhouse where the famous entertainer once lived, and a website just went up asking for $3 million in donations to “stabilize and preserve” the Druid Hill Avenue structure.

The idea of creating a classic city square where there’s now a vacant lot, giving present and future homeowners a big, leafy gathering place with a playground, has strong appeal. If I lived in Druid Heights I would welcome it. I would see it as an asset that could leverage future investment in a neighborhood still saddled with vacants. The plan to include a remnant of the Calloway home in a park that honors his memory seems like a reasonable compromise.

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I don’t know that other aspects of the Baltimore Green Network will encounter controversy. But, no matter, this is a plan that deserves attention, and funding. There are still hundreds of old rowhouses that must be knocked down, so there will be acres of vacant lots that could become assets instead of eyesores and dumping grounds. Hundreds of unemployed Baltimoreans could be put to work on excavation and landscaping crews. And the governor can help plant trees.

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