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Next Baltimore mayor must embrace urbanism | COMMENTARY

The Baltimore city skyline is seen from Middle Branch Park on the Patapsco River in South Baltimore.
The Baltimore city skyline is seen from Middle Branch Park on the Patapsco River in South Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

For urban dwellers, Baltimore’s last elected mayor was out of the ark. Catherine Pugh catered to NIMBYs on bike lanes and was stuck on Schaefer-era ideas like dollar homes. After a trip to Greensboro, North Carolina, she even proposed growing the city with cul-de-sacs.

Presumptive Mayor Brandon Scott can chart a different course. He is the child of the city who has called for a “changing of the guard.” He won the Democratic primary on a progressive platform and with a mobilized and young electorate. Mr. Scott understands that streets are built for marching. They can be avenues for justice.

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Here is what an urban agenda under Mayor Scott could look like:

  1. Reset the Charm City Bikeshare program: Baltimore’s bike share failed because it was rolled out on the cusp of winter in the “White L” neighborhoods and lacked density and capacity. The contractors were corrupt and the design was lousy; bikes were too heavy to ride and too easy to steal. Scooter companies have repeatedly failed to deliver a fleet of bicycles to the city. Meanwhile, bike shares continue to blossom from the Southside of Chicago to the Bronx. They are literally lifelines in the age of COVID-19. Mr. Scott should gather a new working group of cyclists from ALL neighborhoods. Align a new bike share around the Baltimore Green Network plan and street calming efforts like the Big Jump. Ask if cycling advocate Del. Robin Lewis of Baltimore will help steer the program. Use it as an opportunity to address inequality and offer free memberships to Baltimore City public school students and Baltimore YouthWorks.
  2. Advocate for transit-oriented development: Tepid local advocacy delivered the Red Line to Gov. Hogan’s chopping block. Baltimore demands vocal leadership on transit. This starts by re-envisioning the MARC as an inner-city system not just commuter rail. This means re-imagining East Baltimore stations. Mr. Scott should sit down with state leadership, a map of Virginia metro lines and property values in hand. Beg them to see MARC’s potential. Remind them the system has impressive ridership, operating speeds and two lines connecting Baltimore to the nation’s capital. Show those Maglev lovers that transit-oriented development around MARC would bring BILLIONS of dollars to the state. Establish a development group for the West Baltimore station. Create a plan to redevelop the neighborhoods surrounding the Ice House. Dream bigger than the current plan for Penn Station and determine what it would take to connect the station to the Metro West Center via a park and boulevard.
  3. Create a grant for neighborhood dining: Restaurants have been critical to Baltimore’s renaissance. But they have expanded in destination locations while dwindling in other neighborhoods. Mr. Scott’s team should audit all relief programs from the 2015 uprising and the current pandemic — as well as Baltimore’s longer-term loan programs. Have these programs delivered capital to the neighborhoods most in need? Learn from the early successes of Baltimore’s Neighborhood Impact Investment Fund program for reinvesting in low-income areas. Invite Mayor Lightfoot of Chicago to discuss how their equity fund is performing. Use these conversations to build out a new program that supports desired neighborhood retail in East and West Baltimore.
  4. Design for public safety: Urbanists have long understood that mixed-use development can lead to silent guardians and social organization. New urban planning theories and advancements in mapping software have recently advanced more just policing that focuses on places and not people to prevent crime. Mr. Scott should invite academics with this expertise to partner with community leaders and identify physical elements that breed crime, from liquor stores to unpruned trees, to guide design.

Other ideas abound. Narrow North Avenue and shutdown commercial parking in Fells Point. Install permanent light installations across the city’s inactivated spaces. Call Sen. Kamala Harris and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and tell them Baltimore wants to be the pilot for a “Douglass Plan” — a national strategy for housing rehabilitation assistance to people living in historically redlined communities. Work with outgoing Mayor Jack Young to reopen recreation centers and swim every community pool with Senate President and pool advocate Bill Ferguson. Turn Harborplace into a park.

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For Baltimore to thrive, the next mayor must embrace urbanism. They must nurture civic engagement and harness ideas that have led dense places to prosper and be more equitable. Eschew attempts to mimic successful burbs. Reject arguments that good things for poor neighborhoods must mean displacement. Lead the way to ensure they don’t.

Michael Snidal (Mjs2267@columbia.edu) is principal of Snidal Real Estate, a Baltimore construction and property management firm. He is currently working on an evaluation of the Federal Opportunity Zones program in Baltimore.

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