Charles Village taking aim at crime

June 26, 1994|By Elaine Tassy and JoAnna Daemmrich | Elaine Tassy and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers

Like many of her friends and neighbors in crime-weary Charles Village, JoAnn Robinson considers higher taxes a small price to pay for a little peace of mind.

Two years ago, she was held up at gunpoint while walking home at night from the 7-Eleven on 33rd Street. One of Mrs. Robinson's friends recently got out of her car to find a gun in her face. And a neighbor was kidnapped, driven to local automated teller machines and forced to make withdrawals.

"It's happening all over. I've become rather alarmed at the deterioration," said Mrs. Robinson, 52, a history professor at Morgan State University. "It takes away from the quality of your life when you don't feel safe walking your own streets."

This growing unease prompted Charles Village leaders to push for a self-imposed tax increase to pay for private security, as well as other services such as sanitation.

Under legislation approved Monday by the City Council, the Charles Village area could become the first residential neighborhood in Baltimore to set up its own tax district.

The plan, which under the legislation requires the approval of 58 percent of registered voters in the proposed district -- Charles Village, South Charles Village and a small part of Waverly -- calls for a 30-cent surcharge on the city's tax rate of $5.85 per $100 of PTC assessed value. The owner of an $80,000 home would pay an additional $96 a year.

Ballots will be mailed out in October.

Proponents envision raising at least $400,000 a year to provide neighborhood services that the financially strapped city government cannot offer. Other middle-and upper-income neighborhoods, including Bolton Hill, Roland Park and Ashburton, have expressed interest in similar tax districts.

Critics say the Charles Village proposal is poorly defined and represents another rift in a city increasingly divided between the middle class and large sections of mostly poor and decaying neighborhoods.

Deborah Kohl, a friend and neighbor of Mrs. Robinson, fears the tax district could widen the gulf between the "haves" and the "have-nots."

"If I keep buying more and more things to make my neighborhood different, that creates tensions," said Mrs. Kohl, who lives on Guilford Avenue. "Also, if I start paying for things that . . . the city should be providing, I'm just giving the city more reason to cut back."

Modeled on a venture in downtown Baltimore, the Charles Village program was proposed after the 1990 slaying of David Gordon, a 25-year-old engineer at Whitman, Requardt and Associates. He was shot to death while pleading for his life during a robbery in the company parking lot at St. Paul and East 24th streets.

Thomas J. Shafer, a Whitman, Requardt administrative partner who pushed for the tax district, calls it "a way to stabilize the area."

"If we don't have this, we are facing problems of people leaving the area, businesses leaving the area, vacant houses," he said.

Area merchants overwhelmingly favor the idea because they believe added security and cleaner streets could boost the area's popularity.

"Anything that can enhance the neighborhood in security and cleanliness can do nothing but make the area more attractive to merchants and residents," said Jerry Gordon, manager of Eddie's Supermarket on St. Paul Street.

Part of the proposal's appeal is the wide range of income levels and racial groups in the area.

The proposed tax district includes 10,391 residents, of whom 38 percent are black, 54 percent are white and 8 percent are Asian. The area has a residential and commercial mix, stretching from well-kept St. Paul Street to dilapidated parts of Greenmount Avenue.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke noted the population mix in backing the Charles Village effort on an experimental basis. Under the legislation, the program must be reviewed within four years before being continued.

Mr. Schmoke and some other city leaders have expressed concern that a proliferation of special tax districts could lead to the "Balkanization" of Baltimore, with services based on a community's ability to pay for them.

After a public hearing this month, the council measure was amended to require the support of registered voters, not just property owners, and to call for a voluntary partnership with nonprofit institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University, Union Memorial Hospital, the Baltimore Museum of Art and local churches.

Grenville Whitman, vice president of the Abell Improvement Association, a Charles Village neighborhood group, said some homeowners were concerned that those institutions would benefit from increased services without helping to pay for them. "I think there should be a fair-share contribution," he said.

Organizers of the tax district say they always intended to request financial support from nonprofit institutions. They point out that downtown institutions contribute heavily to the $2.2 million management district run by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc.

Still, some people wonder whether the "grime and crime" teams that have cleaned up the Inner Harbor area would work in Charles Village.

"I have the same questions everyone has: Will it work?" said Robert Hoofnagle, a Charles Village renter.

Mr. Whitman said if the program is to succeed, the leaders must come up with specific proposals.

The measure approved by the council gives an interim steering committee composed of community leaders three months to develop a spending plan.

If the proposal is approved by Charles Village voters, a board of neighborhood and business leaders will be established.

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