Baltimore under the wrecking ball: II Where's the vision?: City housing demolition drive replaces one eyesore with another.

April 13, 1997

WITHOUT FANFARE, city officials have veered away from the long-standing policy of patching up vacant houses in hopes that someone will eventually move in. Instead, they're bulldozing more houses -- 1,000 a year. Given Baltimore's shrinking population, more unsafe older housing should be demolished. But not if it simply means replacing "the eyesore of a vacant house with the eyesore of a vacant lot."

Those aren't our words, but those of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who says he intends to alter city demolitions after reading a three-part series in The Sun by John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner on the blight and residential flight fostered by Baltimore's housing policies. Some 40,000 properties are vacant or decaying. Many are so burdened with enormous liens that owners have little choice but to abandon them.

City housing officials have done a poor job letting the public know why they are creating gap-tooth rowhouse neighborhoods, how they are going to keep communities stable and what plans they have for neighborhoods that will never look the same.

There is no clearly articulated vision. What comes next for neighborhoods after the wrecking crews have leveled crumbling housing?

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III says this situation can't be compared to other cities because Baltimore seldom has a completely vacant block. Even if it hampers redevelopment, he would prefer not to condemn the few houses left on a block whose residents may be elderly or unwilling to move.

His sentiment, however, should not preclude discussions with developers eager to offer attractive incentives, even to the elderly. Putting off the inevitable for years will only serve to keep neighborhoods in blight, with weed-infested lots replacing empty houses as drug-deal sites and illegal trash dumps.

Mayor Schmoke says that from now on, he won't authorize demolitions unless the city has a plan for these vacant lots. They could become gardens, or could be turned over to community groups, churches or businesses. Or they might be part of an ambitious effort to renew neighborhoods through private-public housing partnerships. Such an approach, plus a new lien-release policy, constitute good first steps. Now the mayor has to follow through.

Knocking down vacant houses gets rid of eyesores. But much more is needed if Baltimore wants to stem the flight of residents to the suburbs and develop a better, safer and more attractive housing stock.

Tomorrow: Attacking the housing crisis.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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