Annapolis finds a way to grow and survive


June 23, 1996|By Brian Sullam

ANNAPOLIS is doing what Baltimore should have been able to do years ago.

Maryland's capital is annexing areas adjacent to its current boundaries and expanding.

Even though there was some opposition to last week's annexation of the 11.3 acres in the traffic-choked Forest Drive corridor based on fears that the higher city densities will worsen the existing congestion, the decision was fundamentally sound.

Most urban experts agree that the "elastic cities" such as Houston, Charlotte and Columbus have the economic vitality that "inelastic cities" such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Newark lack.

David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque and more recently an urban theoretician, has developed a thesis that cities hemmed in by suburbs and unable to expand experience the worst of contemporary urban economic and social ills. Mr. Rusk contends that the nation's elastic cities, while not free of problems, don't suffer from the same social and economic isolation as the inelastic cities.

With a population of about 35,000, Annapolis is certainly not a major American city. Nevertheless, it suffers from some of the same maladies that besiege the country's larger metropolises.

Despite its increasingly wealthy population and prosperous business and historic districts, Annapolis has pockets of poverty and crime.

Social time bomb

We all recognize that the concentration of poverty is a social time bomb that ultimately hurts the entire community. Drug addiction, crime, family disintegration, poor school achievement, high rates of illegitimacy and welfare dependency combine into a witches' brew of social pathologies that require increased public spending.

When the jobless, poorly educated people dependent on public assistance are concentrated in cities, one of the inevitable outcomes is the flight of the middle class. As a result, the tax base that supports that public spending stagnates and, in the case of a city such as Baltimore, can even decline. No city can survive such a combination of rising service costs and declining revenues.

Artificial boundaries

City lines are artificial political boundaries. They often ignore the underlying economic realities of cities.

On a map it is easy to see the boundary between Annapolis and the county, but on the street it is much more difficult. Even though most people think that the large new stores, the Home Depot and the Best Buys, are in Annapolis, they actually lie currently outside the city limits. The new headquarters for Constellation Energy, the new company to be formed by the merger of BGE and PEPCO, will be outside the city limits.

It may not seem important that these and other large employers are no longer located in the city. After all, they are close enough so that most people can get to them by car or even public transit.

The problem is it is very easy to make artificial distinctions between the city and its suburbs.

City in a suburb

What is terribly ironic about Annapolis' situation is that it is located in a county that is a suburb of a major American city. In 25 years, Baltimore's population has shrunk from just over 900,000 people to about 720,000. Many of those people moved into Anne Arundel County.

There are a great many parallels between what happened to Towson in the past three decades and what is happening to Parole today.

Towson used to be a sleepy county seat, but it is now a major office and commercial center for the area. It has a major shopping complex, several office towers, multi-screen movies theaters and even a hotel. Even though it sits on the edge of Baltimore, the city is unable to benefit from the burgeoning tax base.

Parole prospers

Parole is developing in much the same way that Towson did. When Hutzler's moved out to Towson, it began sapping the vitality of its store in Baltimore. The decline of Hutzler's also coincided with the decline of other downtown department stores.

Annapolis Mall has become a major regional shopping center, eclipsing other regional malls in the county. Other commercial and office developers are scrambling for space around the mall.

The city of Annapolis, meanwhile, suffers. Its officials cannot use its leverage to encourage developers to build on inner West Street, which has become a commercial waste land. Instead, the developers are free to do as they wish right beyond the city line.

As a result, while West Street stagnates, Parole booms even though they are virtually adjacent to each other.

Even more ironic is that the city, which has attractive cultural and scenic amenities, gets no direct tax benefit from this flurry development on its edges.

Studies have shown that suburbs sink or swim along with their adjacent urban centers. As long as Annapolis can grow, its suburbs won't have to worry about sinking.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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