Large-Scale Demolition in the City

August 14, 1993

The saga of Baltimore is a process of building and demolition. Urban renewal, in modern terms, may have started here only in 1951 but a century earlier large-scale demolition of "rookeries, shanties, pigpens and stables" went on to accommodate the city's expansion along the Jones Falls.

After World War II -- when explosive suburbanization had already started -- many planners still optimistically predicted that Baltimore would soon have more than one million residents. That, of course, never happened. Today, Baltimore is a city of "750,000 residents going on 700,000," says Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

The steady decline of Baltimore's population is one reason contributing to the increase of boarded-up houses. Mr. Henson estimates that Baltimore currently has a surplus of 16,000 residential units. The number is likely to increase in future years as the population decreases further.

In view of these realities, Mr. Henson has embarked on a major revision of the city's urban renewal vision. Instead of trying to save blocks that are beyond recovery, he proposes that they be demolished to decrease blight that too often breeds crime and vandalism.

"We need to implement a calculated demolition strategy," Mr. Henson said in an interview.

The housing commissioner said outdated, 12-foot-wide alley housing is at the top of his demolition list. Similarly, he wants to raze blocks of structurally unstable rowhouses that have no economic viability or redevelopment potential.

If this new policy is implemented -- and Mr. Henson says he plans to begin meeting with affected neighborhood groups next week -- it will mark a drastic shift in the city's development strategy. During the past two decades, the city viewed most urban renewal neighborhoods as salvageable. Run-down housing was rebuilt regardless of cost.

Mr. Henson criticizes that approach, saying scarce resources are misspent.

"There is no sense spending $120,000 a house that when we finish it is worth $30,000 maybe [on the open market]. It doesn't make any economic sense," he said. "We've got to come up with a policy that's a plan for the year 2000. We can't operate in the circumstances of the 1980s."

Mr. Henson was a private developer before he joined the Schmoke cabinet in March. That perspective shows in his creative thinking.

Yet the city has to offer realistic plans for dealing with the gaping holes he proposes to create in neighborhoods and the residents who would be displaced. Otherwise, a demolition drive may be little different from a Vietnam-era strategy of saving a town by destroying it.

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