40 Years Of Renewing A City

January 12, 1995|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Sun Staff Writer

Four decades ago, a study warned that the city government faced "bankruptcy within a generation," and people from Washington saw Baltimore mainly as an obstacle on their way to New York.

Today, the city's real estate tax base, though eroded by the recession, is anchored in giant towers at Charles Center and the Inner Harbor, and people from Washington see Baltimore as a place to go for baseball games -- and some even as a place to live and commute to jobs in the District of Columbia.

But Baltimore still has profound problems that need urgent attention, especially schools and crime.

That was the view yesterday as the Greater Baltimore Committee kicked off its 40th anniversary celebration by bringing two surviving and still-influential founders -- James Rouse, 80, founder of the Rouse Co., and Walter Sondheim, 86, the former Hochschild Kohn department store executive long active in efforts to revitalize downtown -- back to the boardroom for deli sandwiches, dill pickle spears, potato chips and soda pop with half-a-dozen journalists.

"We took a book of photos of Baltimore's problems around to all the most powerful people to try to sell the idea of a small private-sector group to act on a few selected problems at a time, and people told us we were wasting our time," Mr. Rouse recounted.

"Finally we decided the only person who could get us started was Clarence Miles. He had just brought the St. Louis Browns here to become the Orioles, and people were listening to him. He loved the idea," and the GBC was born soon afterward, Mr. Rouse said.

Even then, not everyone was convinced.

"Pittsburgh has always had its Mellons, but all I've ever had was watermelons," then-Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. harrumphed to the 1952 assembly of business leaders Mr. Miles used to put the idea over, Mr. Sondheim recalled.

The GBC's formative experience was its second project, the Jones Falls Expressway, "a candidate for action for years that never got done," Mr. Rouse said.

"All 21 members of the GBC executive committee came down to testify to the City Council, and they discovered that they could get something done, and they could go home and tell their wives and children that they had accomplished something," he said.

When a study of downtown real estate revealed that not a single business had any expansion plans, the GBC decided Baltimore needed to take on the biggest project that could be pulled off. It became Charles Center.

What should be the GBC's projects today? "The education system and the security system, because those are of fundamental importance," Mr. Rouse replied. Mr. Sondheim nodded.

Public security is the first issue being taken up by a new Public Policy Group the GBC has just formed to get back to the old practice of focusing hard on just a few issues, Donald P. Hutchinson, the GBC's president, hastened to point out.

Even now, more people are beginning to come downtown because Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier "has inspired people that it doesn't have to be all downhill on the crime front," Mr. Sondheim said.

For the longer pull, Baltimore has a terrific opportunity in the Clinton administration's $100 million empowerment zone grant, "the first federal program I've ever seen that was really intended to change the systems of the communities and not just do projects," Mr. Rouse said.

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