Chief planner fulfills youthful ambition Glancing at his past, Graves looks to city's future

August 20, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

From his office window, Charles C. Graves III sees the unvarnished side of Baltimore, the crowded expressway, old brick warehouses and children playing in front of low-income housing.

It doesn't bother the city's new planning director that his desk on the eighth floor of the Charles L. Benton Building doesn't face the sleek towers surrounding the harbor. His view gives him a glimpse of the work ahead of him -- and reminds him of his past.

It was the rain-splashed view from an office in Gary, Ind., that led him as a 10th-grader to decide he wanted to become a city planner. On a civics trip, he asked Charles C. Allen, the head of the planning department who would become a lifelong mentor, about his job.

Mr. Allen pointed out the window and asked the 15-year-old to describe what he saw.

"I told him, 'I see people standing in the rain waiting for the bus. I see vacant, boarded-up buildings. I see traffic stopped on the road,' " Mr. Graves recalled.

"Then he asked me what I would do to fix it. And he said that's what planning is about -- improving the quality of life in a city."

Twenty-three years later, Charles Graves is making plans to improve the quality of life in Baltimore.

A serious, soft-spoken man who took over the planning department last week, he already has toured neighborhoods across the city and outlined an ambitious list of goals. His low-key style and astute questions have impressed his staff.

His first priority is persuading the city to update its strategic blueprint for the future. He is also intent on revitalizing the threadbare East Monument Street corridor at Johns Hopkins Hospital. And he wants to focus more on economic empowerment.

"It does no good for us to plan for new housing, a new streetscape or new facades without looking at the need for new jobs," he said.

The former director of the Appleton, Wis., planning department, Mr. Graves, 38, was selected from 160 candidates nationwide for the $73,500-a-year post. He succeeded Ernest Freeman, who resigned last summer to head San Diego's planning office.

"He comes in with very solid credentials and a sense of his role in combining planning with the economic and community side," said Mr. Freeman, who knows Mr. Graves from professional organizations, during a phone interview from San Diego. "My sense is he's worked very hard to get where he is."

A native of Gary, Mr. Graves studied political science as an undergraduate at Hampton University in Virginia. He returned after graduation in 1978 to work as a city planner in Gary and moved on to Cincinnati in 1981.

In 1987, while a planner in Hampton, he flew on weekends to New Hampshire College to study for a master's degree in community economic development.

"I had heard a lot of comments from developers that planners didn't understand the numbers," Mr. Graves said.

He spent the following years with the Montgomery County Department of Housing and Community Development creating low-income housing. Building homes in the affluent county for families surviving with contaminated septic systems and no running water was his most personally rewarding work, he said.

"You sleep well at night," he said.

Two years ago, he went to Appleton, a city of 68,000 in the fastest-growing region in Wisconsin, to get "the credentials" to become the planning director of a big city. Now he's in Baltimore, the place that his wife, Denise Simmons Graves, calls "his favorite city."

Mr. Graves' ascent does not surprise the man he calls his mentor.

"I've watched him over the years as he's pursued his career, and he goes around his work in a strong, conscientious way," said Mr. Allen, 57, now a city councilman in Newport News, Va. "He approaches his work not from a bombastic way, but very thoroughly, which is one of the great traits of planners."

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