Older urban communities to be targets of new revitalization program

April 15, 1994|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

Six years ago, East Towson appeared headed for extinction. Baltimore County had designated the historic African-American community for intense business development and high-density housing.

Now, it is being cited as an example of how an aging county community can be given new life.

What happened in East Towson is what County Executive Roger B. Hayden had in mind yesterday when he announced plans to form an urban community conservation program.

"We have to preserve and protect these vital older communities," Mr. Hayden said after his annual budget address to the County Council.

Mr. Hayden said he wants a plan ready in time to prepare a capital improvement package for the 1996 bond referendum. He said county Planning Director P. David Fields would leave his current job to devote full time to the proposal. It's an idea Mr. Fields has been pushing for more than a year.

"I've come to truly believe that the next 10 years will be crucial for the county in terms of its well-being," said Mr. Fields. "And the county's well-being will be tied to how well we solve our problems in our urban, older communities."

Data from the 1990 Census destroyed the myth that the county is a wealthy and prosperous middle-class subdivision, Mr. Fields said.

"We've poured money, planning and other resources into our growth areas, now it is time we did the same for our older communities," he said.

Wayne Skinner, president of the Towson-Loch Raven Community Council, couldn't agree more. Mr. Skinner is one of the leaders of the Community Conservation Advisory Group, a countywide organization of community leaders dedicated to preserving the older communities.

JTC "While millions of dollars were put into new communities, the infrastructure in the older communities rotted away, the old business districts decayed, and our school roofs leaked," Mr. Skinner said.

"It looks like the older communities are finally going to be put on the front burner where they belong."

The county has made efforts to deal with urban blight in the older sections.

Recent legislation provides for commercial planned unit developments to make it easier to revitalize business and industrial areas.

Louis Romeo Jr., president of the West Inverness Community Association, already has some suggestions for his area, an older neighborhood of Dundalk.

"How about repaved alleys, rebuilt curbs, better street lighting, repairing the roof on our community activity center, just for starters?" Mr. Romeo said.

"Then how about programs to convert the some 500 rental houses in West Inverness to owner-occupied homes to stabilize the neighborhood and make it a more attractive place to live?"

It so happens that this falls in line with Mr. Fields' thinking.

"Our older communities could be a fantastic source of affordable housing, which is badly needed in our county, but problems such as crime, schools are hindering the ability to market these communities," he said.

Mr. Fields' job will be to draft a plan that deals with streets and roofs, crime, education and changing populations. The plan also would set goals for the revitalization of the older communities.

The idea worked in East Towson. Hidden in the shadows of tall office and retail buildings Towson's central core, the community felt that no one knew its plight and no one cared. By the late 1980s, its housing was crumbling, and there was no building residents could use as a focal point for community activities.

But when the county proposed running a multilane commuter loop through the heart of the community, its residents were galvanized.

Local activists demanded a community plan, one that would preserve and strengthen East Towson's existence.

"We were struggling just to survive taking on issues as they came up," said East Towson activist Shelley Hawkins.

"We wanted a plan that identified particular problems and one that set goals to solve them and keep East Towson viable."

Now, working with county and federal agencies, East Towson will have its own multipurpose community center, where children and young adults will learn about the hazards of alcohol and drug addiction and the heritage of their community.

Homes have been rehabilitated, and Harris Hill, a new residential center, has added affordable housing to the community.

A child care center will help parents enter the work force. It will be in the renovated Carver School, which was the oldest county school for black children in the days of segregation.

"Our plan has given the community goals which will help to preserve its future, and it made us vibrant again," Mrs. Hawkins said.

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