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Neighborhoods surrounding Pimlico Race Course to receive $2 million in slots revenue this year

Surrounded by clusters of trees and tall grasses, the community garden on Woodland Avenue provides Mary Waller with a serene, pastoral view from her wide front porch, less than half a mile from the Pimlico Race Course.

But only a few of Waller's neighbors are left to enjoy it. Her side of the street is lined with rowhouses long abandoned and left to deteriorate, a lasting reminder of how her block in Northwest Baltimore has languished since she moved in three decades ago.

"This was a beautiful, beautiful neighborhood," she said. But now, "there are very few people on Woodland Avenue, and everything is gone."

This year, plans long in the works to revitalize Park Heights could get started with an influx of $2 million from slots revenue, making this neighborhood among the first to see a tangible benefit from legalized casino gambling in Maryland.

First up is turning an empty field near Waller's home into a 7-acre park designed to anchor a new development that could eventually spread over 75 acres now littered with 500 vacant lots and buildings. Plans include a grocery store, library and new housing, and Waller's rowhouse is slated for demolition to make way for the improvements.

"We are the envy of all the neighborhoods, to some extent," said Julius "Julio" Colon, president of Park Heights Renaissance, a quasi-public agency created in 2006 to streamline development efforts outlined in the Park Heights Master Plan.

Though Pimlico doesn't have slot machines, a portion of money generated from state casinos is required to go to communities adjacent to horse tracks. The final community meeting — before the spending plan goes to the mayor — is scheduled for Tuesday.

The first $2 million installment will be used mostly to clear lots and vacant houses for the park; it will cost about $650,000 to raze buildings and relocate residents. The city expects to get another $3.5 million next year, and more checks annually through 2027. Park Heights gets the bulk of the money — 75 percent, or $1.5 million this year — and other communities located within a mile radius of the track get the rest.

Baltimore officials have repeatedly, and for decades, promised to reinvigorate Park Heights, pumping money into programs and community development. In 2004, the city funneled $10 million into the neighborhood for urban renewal, but even then officials acknowledged that residents viewed it with "skeptical optimism."

The money from slots — which replaces the millions in yearly stipends the community got as direct aid from racetrack revenue — is being met much the same way by residents who look at their beleaguered streets and wonder where all the money went.

At a series of public forums that began in January to gauge the best way to spend the slots money, and in interviews, residents and representatives of community groups complained that their economically depressed corner of Northwest Baltimore is besieged by crime, drug addiction and joblessness. Building a park won't address their most urgent needs, they said.

Some fear the city wants to push old-timers out and take down their homes to turn Park Heights into a gentrified area like Canton and Patterson Park. Others point to what they see as wasteful or impractical spending, such as adding a part-time HIV outreach worker to a clinic, or giving the private Sinai Hospital public money for a youth outreach worker.

Residents did win on one front, getting the city to scratch spending $350,000 — over four years — of slots money to paint murals on vacant buildings. "That didn't fly with anyone in the community," said Will Hanna, who heads the New Park Heights Community Development Corp., a private nonprofit.

He questioned making the park a priority. "The community as a whole has bigger problems," he said. "Where the money is going is not necessarily in the community's best interest."

William Gordon, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and chairs the residential council of Park Heights, a group that aims to unite the area's 20-plus community groups, also worried that the city's priorities are misplaced.

"We are in need of a lot of youth programs now," he said. "No matter what you build, if you don't change the attitude, it doesn't make any difference what you put up. They will build something for them to tear down."

Gordon said years of inaction have left him and others concerned that another effort to breathe life back into Park Heights will have little impact. Of the millions spent over the years, he said, "We haven't seen anything here. Nothing is being done with it."

Baltimore officials have said money from racetrack proceeds paid for a wide range of projects, including parks, playgrounds and improved signage and landscaping, in addition to programs to help residents get jobs and buy homes.

And even before the slots money arrives, Colon, of Park Heights Renaissance, said his group has begun projects beyond building a park.

His group has started the "Clean Team" to clear trash in alleyways and vacant lots. The garden across from Waller's home is one of the first in the neighborhood to teach children about healthy diets and gives residents a plot for growing squash, peppers and strawberries. And Colon said they've provided home improvement loans and workshops to educate prospective buyers.

While much of this year's money is going toward the new park — it will be supplemented by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which has promised more than $1 million to pay for lights, bleachers and a fence for a ballpark — the city is finding other uses for the funds.

About $270,000 has been requested to make space for a new turf field and baseball field along Denmore Avenue, as well as an outdoor basketball court and parking lot. But the city also wants to spend $200,000 for consultants to advise on future projects.

Though the slots money has to be used primarily for capital projects, Colon, noting concerns of some residents, said money would also be spent on an adult education program and hiring a public safety coordinator. Next year, he said, slots money will help pay for summer camps.

He defended adding a position at the HIV clinic, saying it would help reduce the number of HIV cases in an area that ranks high in the city and nation for the disease. He said the money spent at Sinai will maintain an existing program that relies on grants and donations.

"We're looking to addressing more issues in the future," Colon said. "This community has been neglected for 30 years. They are tired of being replanned."

City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton, who represents Park Heights, said the community has been ignored for so long that residents are right to be wary when new plans are presented.

"I'm hopeful we are going to see new life come into that area," she said. "Overall, I think it's moving along fairly well. … There's always going to be some group that is not happy."

The slots money will allow the city to take its first significant steps toward implementing the Park Heights Master Plan, which envisions transforming a blighted neighborhood of 30,000 people into a community with inviting greenery, new stores and middle-income housing.

The master plan says Park Heights had not "participated in the renewed interest in older neighborhoods" that sparked a resurgence in home sales and an influx of middle-class residents to parts of Baltimore in the mid-2000s.

The document, written before the collapse of the housing market, calls for redevelopment that would support "adding large numbers of middle-income and affluent households to Park Heights … and attract high-paying white-collar jobs."

Some residents say they fear the city wants to push them out. They look across town, to West Baltimore, where demolition of the Murphy Homes public housing high-rise and, on the eastside, where new development by Johns Hopkins Hospital obliterated large portions of run-down housing and sent residents elsewhere.

"None of those people are in the city now and the city wonders why the population decreased," Hanna said. "We know what happened in East Baltimore."

He called the Park Heights plan "forced gentrification" and asked, "Who are you building these amenities for? Right now these people need jobs."

Colon said the goal is to preserve the community: "You have to create reasons for people to want to live and continue to live in this community."

Waller, who has called Park Heights home since 1981, said she would like to see her neighborhood "built up." But she also questioned whether any amount of money can turn around a place in such dire shape.

"This neighborhood needs everything, if you want the truth," she said. "It can't get no worse."

Waller said she's not opposed to moving but hasn't been told by the city specifically when her house might be demolished. "We don't know anything," she said. "What are they going to do with us?"

Whether she relocates to another house in Park Heights or moves to the county, Waller said she wants a home similar to the one she has now on Woodland Avenue.

"I love my porches," she said. "We've got to find a place with a porch."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

An earlier version of this story had an incorrect location for Murphy Homes. The public housing high-rise was located in West Baltimore.

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