City to demolish 800 rowhouses Sandtown to be site of initial assault on vacant properties

March 23, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is preparing to tear down more than 800 vacant rowhouses as part of a vast, multimillion-dollar undertaking to revitalize impoverished sections of the inner city.

In the most wide-scale rowhouse demolition in over two decades, the city and nonprofit development groups plan to level entire blocks of deserted, deteriorating properties in East and West Baltimore.

The first will be torn down in the West Baltimore community of Sandtown-Winchester, possibly as early as summer, pending approval by the Maryland Historical Trust. The entire demolition is expected to take several years.

Most of the land would be transformed into parks, yards and vegetable and flower gardens. Only a quarter of the properties would be redeveloped for housing, and a few others would become neighborhood shopping centers.

There are more than 9,000 vacant buildings scattered across Baltimore, remnants of a three-decade exodus from the city. The proposed clearance of some 819 crumbling homes is seen as a component of the renewal efforts under way in Sandtown and the neighborhoods surrounding the Johns Hopkins medical institutions. The homes scheduled for demolition are often tiny, badly dilapidated, and too costly to rehabilitate.

"In many of these communities, there is a high density of housing and a high density of poverty," said Baltimore housing chief Daniel P. Henson III. "One of the things the communities have told us is they agree demolition should be part of what they are doing in planning to make things better."

In Sandtown, as many as 870 homes stand vacant and boarded in the 72 square blocks that are the focus of a revitalization project by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and James W. Rouse, the developer and founder of the Enterprise Foundation.

Half are to be renovated and the other half razed under a $63 million effort financed by the federal, state and local governments and private interests. The latest plan designed to fulfill Mayor Schmoke's promise of three years ago to take care of all of Sandtown's vacant homes calls for rehabilitating 433 properties and demolishing 419. Across town, another 2,300 rowhouses have been abandoned in the 250 blocks around the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Hopkins medical school and other medical organizations.

The Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, a nonprofit formed by Hopkins and the city, is seeking a $31 million federal loan and millions more from other sources to renovate about half of them. Some 400 of the vacant homes will be razed.

Unlike in Sandtown, where modern townhouses or shops will be built on demolished sites, the East Baltimore group wants to use the land strictly for neighborhood parks.

"The houses have been vacant for a long time; they are rat-infested and trash-infested and they just look bad," said Lucille Gorham, a neighborhood leader who works with the Middle East Community Organization. "We're trying to redo this neighborhood, and we want to have some green space, some space for little parks that will be used by the people who live here."

Together, the two projects will mark the largest rowhouse clearing in Baltimore since the early 1970s, when homes were razed along Franklin Street for an expressway that was never completed.

In the 1950s, the city cleared several slums and replaced them with huge public housing projects. The four high-rise complexes that were built after World War II have since deteriorated, beset by crime, drugs and poor conditions, and are being torn down.

Some preservationists fear the scale of the demolition will dramatically alter Sandtown and the East Baltimore neighborhoods.

"We hate to see historic buildings demolished, especially in large areas, because it can change the fabric of existing communities," said Tyler Gearhart, a program director with Preservation Maryland.

But he added, "Our primary concern is creating a good environment in the city, and in some instances, well-designed new construction is a better alternative."

City planners, housing officials and community leaders say the effort will differ sharply with demolitions of the past.

This time, the communities not the government came up with the plans.

Most of the rowhouses are empty, so there will be little relocation, in contrast to the forced moves of the past. And the land will be used as part of broad initiatives to create new housing, education, medical programs, business incentives and job training in the two areas.

"We see it as an opportunity, an opportunity to lower the density and provide more side yards, back yards, open space, garages," said Charles C. Graves III, the city's planning director. "It's selective demolition, rather than wholesale demolition, say for an expressway. All of this is going to be done in the context of a community planning effort."

The Maryland Historical Trust has begun a review of the first plans, for Sandtown. The blueprint for East Baltimore is a few months behind, in part because the renewal effort began in 1994, at least three years after Sandtown.

Bill Pencek, deputy director of the state's preservation agency, said the plans for both areas will be reviewed to make sure there is an appropriate balance.

"We understand the demographic dynamics which are driving the city to consider these solutions," he said.

"But we always have to try to balance the desire so we don't inadvertently destroy parts of the city's history."

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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