City tactics are applied to county woes Ruppersberger takes aim with big projects, Schaefer-ish enthusiam

February 18, 1996|By LIZ ATWOOD

About all that is missing from Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's plans for revitalizing the southeast area of the county are the funny hats and plastic duck.

The county executive isn't employing the props William Donald Schaefer used during his years of overseeing revitalization of Baltimore City, but many of his strategies are the same as those of the "Do-It-Now" mayor during the 1970s and 1980s.

Consider the plans Mr. Ruppersberger has unveiled during the past several months to save the southeast and stave off deterioration of the entire county:

Building a Harborplace-like project on Dark Head Cove near Martin State Airport.

Redeveloping vacant and underused industrial land parcels.

Cultivating tourism through the construction of hotels, parks and possibly a convention center.

Capitalizing on the area's 175 miles of waterfront.

Upgrading roads, beautifying business corridors, repaving alleys.

"We are where Baltimore City was in the 1950s," says Baltimore County Deputy Planning Director J. James Dieter.

In 1954, when Baltimore City began its revitalization efforts, property values were declining and businesses were fleeing to the suburbs. A local group commissioned a master plan to guide downtown redevelopment and a few years later, Charles Center, a 33-acre renewal effort, began.

Downtown revitalization continued in the 1960s at the Inner Harbor. Aging wharves were demolished, the convention center and hotels were built. In 1980 Harborplace - $16 million worth of glittery shops and restaurants - was opened and drew more than million visitors during the first year.

A year later, the National Aquarium opened, albeit several months behind schedule. That forced Mr. Schaefer to fulfill his pledge of swimming in the seal tank if the project didn't open on time.

It's hard to imagine the ever-politic Mr. Ruppersberger putting on an old-fashioned swim suit, holding onto a plastic duck and jumping into Middle River if his plans don't come to fruition.

But while he lacks Mr. Schaefer's flamboyance and temperament, Mr. Ruppersberger seems to be developing something of the same enthusiasm and penchant for visionary projects - without the federal money available to Mr. Schaefer.

"A lot of the solution is attitude," Mr. Ruppersberger said. "That starts with me."

The problems Mr. Ruppersberger is facing in Baltimore County are also reminiscent of those that challenged Mr. Schaefer when he was elected to the City Council in 1955.

Baltimore County's population is aging, poverty is rising and development is lagging behind the surrounding counties. Older neighborhoods such as Essex and Middle River are blighted by run-down apartment buildings and shuttered businesses.

In 1960, Baltimore County had the highest median household income in the region. Today, the county's $42,800 median household income is lower than every other county in the area.

The fastest-growing segments of the county's population are the elderly and young children - both groups that need government services but contribute little to the tax coffers. And while the demand for services is growing, the county's revenue from property taxes and income taxes is virtually flat.

Gone are the days when the county could rely on fast growth to pay the way. Stringent zoning laws have blocked intensive development in two-thirds of the county. In the land that remains, much is already developed - even the growth areas of White Marsh-Perry Hall and Owings Mills are running out of room.

So Mr. Ruppersberger has dusted off the Schaefer revitalization blueprint - big projects accompanied by plenty of enthusiasm. In unveiling a southeast revitalization plan, he is targeting an area of 70 square miles and a population of 166,566 people - in a portion of the county in the direst need.

In the past 20 years, the southeast has lost 20,000 jobs as big employers such as Glenn L. Martin and Bethlehem Steel downsized and restructured. Now residents, who once proudly produced bombers and ships to fight fascism, battle unemployment and poverty.

Along with poverty have come other ills: increased child abuse, alcoholism, drug use and crime. While unscrupulous landlords have allowed houses and apartments to deteriorate, the county lTC has been almost as negligent, ignoring potholes and crumbling sidewalks. Over the years, the county and city sent their most unpleasant projects to the east side: garbage dumps, a sewage treatment plant, rubble fills.

In the past six months, the plan of action has taken shape. The county wants to buy and tear down some of the more horrendous apartment buildings and replace them with single-family homes. County planners and community associations are hoping to take advantage of the county's quadrennial comprehensive rezoning process to lower zoning densities.

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