AFTER YEARS of passively watching the number of vacant houses in Baltimore skyrocket and deteriorate, the city's housing department has sprung into action.
Under Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, it has started a large-scale demolition of residential structures deemed unsafe or unsalvageable. Last year, 529 such buildings were torn down; this year's goal has been set at 1,000.
This kind of demolition derby is understandable. The city has lost about 250,000 residents since the 1950s. The number of vacant houses may be as high as 30,000.
But like other forms of born-again zealotry, a spirited demolition drive is not without pitfalls. Unless it is done according to a carefully considered plan, the unique fabric of Baltimore
neighborhoods may be lost.
Without a plan
A visual survey of demolition sites suggests the city has no plan. Mr. Henson acknowledges as much. He says it is up to the nine neighborhood service centers that were established last year to develop a plan.
This is nonsense. The neighborhood service centers are not equipped to deal with this complicated issue. It should be handled in a comprehensive manner by zoning and planning officials.
This week, I toured such Park Heights-area streets as Towanda and Norfolk, Springhill and Quantico. They underscored the dichotomy of many Baltimore inner-city neighborhoods: Nicely kept homes stood next to vacant and unboarded hulks with trashy backyards and alleys.
''These are good houses, they are well constructed,'' said Jerry Cornes, a rental-property manager who was one of my guides.
He was angry that the city was allowing the once-attractive blocks to go to pot. Nevertheless, he thought the neighborhood would survive somehow.
''No way it will be demolished,'' he argued. ''It's probably 30 percent homeowners.''
I told Mr. Cornes I did not share his optimism. The problems of abandonment, vandalism and drugs seemed too overwhelming. Moreover, as an absentee landlord the city itself often is the culprit. Once things get out of control, it is more tempting to tear down than spend money on code enforcement and repairs. I said to myself, ''Just wait until the city gets its hands on this block and demolishes a couple of houses in the middle.''
As the demolition czar of Baltimore, Mr. Henson wields God-like powers. He can decide the fate of a block or a whole neighborhood by either sending in the bulldozers or devising an alternative plan.
I happen to like Mr. Henson. But he is an impulsive man who is capable of a lot of arrogance. Like Robert Moses, the legendary New York City park commissioner, he itches for action. ''Once I demolish it, what are you gonna do? Rebuild it?'' he seems to be saying.
The results so far are mixed. On one marginal West Baltimore block, a crumbling structure was demolished in the middle of a row, leaving a house on each side. It is unlikely that either will remain occupied for long. Yet the city spent about $20,000 in demolition and shoring-up costs. This makes no economic sense.
Helter-skelter demolition poses an even greater threat to Baltimore's officially designated historic neighborhoods.
Residents cannot legally change even the paint of their doors without approval by the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation. Yet Mr. Henson can order bulldozers to raze condemned houses without as much as a hearing, producing snaggle-tooth blocks.
During its 200th-birthday year, the city is busy destroying its past.
Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 2/01/97