Park Heights again a target for renewal City's first attempt at rehabilitation was dismal failure

September 07, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

In 1973, when Park Heights became Baltimore's largest urban renewal area, the city embarked on an ambitious plan to reverse the neighborhood's decline by creating jobs and housing.

Twenty years and $25 million later, community residents say the plan has been a dismal failure. Park Heights today is plagued by crime and drugs, and many businesses and homeowners have fled streets where vacant and dilapidated buildings -- some literally crumbling -- pockmark the neighborhood.

The urban renewal district is bounded by Wabash Avenue on the west, Northern Parkway on the north, Greenspring Avenue on the east and Druid Park Drive on the south.

Over the past few years, the district has lost three institutions -- the Park Heights Community Corporation, the Park Heights Development Corporation and the Park Heights Street Academy created as part of what was to have been the neighborhood's renaissance.

Now, with the help of a consulting firm hired by the city, community residents are forming two groups -- one to develop jobs and new businesses and another to run social programs.

"There has to be a physical and social uplifting of the community," said James Howard Young, who has lived in the neighborhood for 28 years and is organizing the yet-to-be-named community corporation to run social programs.

When the urban renewal area was created, the city's goals seemed realistic -- to provide standard housing for Park Heights' families, prevent blight, create jobs and "stabilize and reverse the decline of shopping districts," according to the city's plan.

Despite the millions of dollars spent on new houses, low interest mortgages, planting trees, youth football leagues and tutoring programs, Mr. Young and several other longtime residents say Park Heights has not turned around. In fact, the blight is even more evident on the neighborhood's major arteries -- Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road.

Park Heights still has pockets of well-maintained homes owned by longtime residents who are courageously fighting decay and crime. But in the last two decades, neighborhood leaders have seen hundreds of houses change hands -- from homeowners to local landlords, then to out-of-town speculators who bought the properties sight unseen, evicted the tenants and let the houses become vacant eyesores.

They also have watched legitimate businesses flee from Park Heights as drug dealers moved in.

Despite attempts to bring new businesses to the area, unemployment rose from 4.6 percent in 1970 to 7.6 in the 1990 census. Citywide unemployment was 5.6 percent in 1990.

The median income for the community also is lower than the city as a whole -- $21,385 in 1990, compared to $24,045 citywide. The population also fell by 9,000 -- from 48,000 in 1973 to 39,000 today.

One of the city's most expensive attempts to lure homebuyers to the area was the $2.6 million face lift still evident in the 3700 blocks of Park Heights Ave. and Reisterstown Road.

Called the "pilot block," the city renovated 47 houses for homeowners, hoping property owners nearby would be inspired to renovate their homes without using government funds.

Today, the pilot block is still a lovely group of houses, nicely painted with iron fences and healthy trees out front.

"But it never caught on," Mr. Young said. "It's an island now that is a showplace. We were hoping absentee landlords would come in and renovate, but they didn't."

Despite the decline, Mr. Young says he has renewed hope for the community, which plans to raise money for a drug treatment center.

Fresh look

The city housing department, willing to take a fresh look at rebuilding the community, hired the consulting firm in January to help residents renew the battle.

The firm, the Development Training Institute, is a national nonprofit corporation headquartered in Baltimore that trains community groups to tackle problems ranging from affordable housing to business development.

The institute's staff spent months knocking on doors, passing out leaflets and meeting with 100 community residents.

By summer, the effort had inspired several new Park Heights leaders to pick up the fight where previous community groups left off when the Park Heights Community Corporation shut its doors in January 1991.

The community corporation had tried to guide the renaissance of the urban renewal area, bringing in homeowners and keeping the community clean of trash and crime.

But in 1991, the city pulled its $215,000 annual federal grant from the corporation after auditors found the group had misused more than $60,000 in federal money by paying cash advances to employees, claiming bogus office expenses and financing an out-of-town trip and auto repairs.

That same year, the city also cut off an annual $175,000 grant to the Park Heights Development Corporation, which was created to stimulate business and build housing. Auditors found that group also misused government funds.

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