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Baltimore's forgotten corridors

The skeleton of Baltimore's newest skyscraper is rising along the waterfront at Harbor Point. A few blocks west, a long-delayed addition to the top of the Four Seasons building is underway. In the traditional central business district, things are also looking up — after decades as a parking lot, plans are underway for a new, 43-story apartment tower on the old McCormick property across from the Inner Harbor, and this week a Columbia real estate firm paid $121 million for the Transamerica tower at 100 Light Street.

All that counts as good news for a city in need of investment, but it also dredges up the question that swirled around the city's decision to provide millions in tax increment financing and other benefits for Harbor Point: Has Baltimore's focus on glitzy downtown development come at the expense of the neighborhoods where most of the city's residents live? It's not a new issue, but in the wake of the riots after Freddie Gray's death, it has gained new urgency. For every glittering block of Harbor East, there are acres of derelict commercial districts spread throughout the city.

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This week, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake formally launched an effort aimed at addressing that divide, Leveraging Investments in Neighborhood Corridors, or LINCS. The focus is sound — areas that have seen residential investment but where the commercial corridors haven't kept pace — and so is the effort to involve the community through structured planning sessions called charettes. The question will be follow-through. Will the administration just spruce up some streetscapes and pay for some marketing studies, or will it do the hard work that's necessary to help make it economically and logistically feasible to invest in areas where others have not?

Initially, the program will focus on five commercial corridors, and of them, the effort on Greenmount Avenue between Eager and 29th streets is farthest along. It's charette was held this week, and the city has assembled some data to illustrate the problems at hand. On the plus side, the southern end of the corridor brushes up against the successful Station North Arts District, and the northern end abuts the relatively bustling Waverly commercial district. The area has also seen some substantial development in recent years. The strikingly attractive Lillian Jones Apartments, a 74-unit, affordable development in the Johnston Square neighborhood, sits just to the south of City Arts Apartments, which offers subsidized units for artists as well as gallery space. Adjacent to it are rows of rehabbed homes and the new Baltimore Design School. A bit farther north, in the Barclay neighborhood, dozens of homes have been built or rehabbed in recent years.

But, as the city's assessment puts it, "the commercial district properties have a high degree of vacancy and abandonment," and many are "not well maintained and have low-quality facades and design." More than two-fifths of commercial properties are vacant, and attracting high-quality retail is obviously a challenge; unemployment is substantially higher than the city-wide average, and median household income is much lower. Perhaps not coincidentally, the area has 18 corner stores and seven convenience stores but no supermarkets. The most famous business in the corridor doesn't actually exist; that stretch of Greenmount is home to the rib joint in the series "House of Cards," though in real life the building is vacant.

The idea of focusing on the "main streets" of various Baltimore neighborhoods isn't new — in fact, there's a well established Waverly Main Street organization just north of the LINCS area. And considering the scope of the issues involved along Greenmount, the city isn't bringing much in the way of resources at this point. It is paying $200,000 for a market study and has $175,000 in the capital budget for streetscape improvements. A bit more is budgeted for Liberty Heights Avenue and a bit less for Central and East North avenues. The city is also pledging help from assorted city agencies, including more street sweeping, targeted code enforcement and other efforts, but the amount of cash involved is bound to raise the hackles of those who objected to the Harbor Point deal, which includes $113 million in tax breaks and $107 million in tax increment financing. It's a bit of a false comparison, in that the city isn't cutting a check for that amount but rather foregoing some of the increased property taxes that development would generate for a number of years. But it does underscore just how vast the disconnect is between downtown and uptown. Harbor Point alone represents about eight times as much investment as has gone into the entire Greenmount corridor in the last five years.

The city can't make up that kind of difference through grants, loans or any other means. But it can devote more energy to steering would-be investors through what can be a befuddling bureaucracy, and it can offer the same kinds of tax incentives on a smaller scale. A marketing plan and some streetscaping isn't going to turn Greenmount and corridors like it into Harbor East, but they can be improved. Notably, some of the priorities the community has identified — such as cleaning up trash, improving street lighting and timing traffic signals to slow down motorists — don't involve large costs. But they do require coordinated attention across city agencies.

Right now, the community has that kind of attention. The question is whether City Hall keeps it up. We give the mayor credit for devoting attention to this issue, but LINCS needs to be more than a handy response to deflect the next round of complaints about tax incentives for wealthy developers — which we expect will be coming just as soon as Kevin Plank reveals his plans for all the property he's buying in South Baltimore. It needs to produce results.

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