Turn pop­u­la­tion tide: Green more neigh­bor­hoods

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND -

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.

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 home­own­ers, 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 green­de­prived 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 re­quire 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.

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.

BALTIMORE SUN

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.

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