Exploit the opportunities inherent in the shrinking of the city

April 14, 1997|By Joseph McNeely

LAST WEEK'S SERIES in The Sun on abandonment and revitalization of city property has brought valuable attention to a crisis known only too well to inner-city neighborhood leaders and housing activists. Fundamentally, the issue is about market forces, not merely about government procedures to deal with abandonment after it occurs.

The causes of the city's weak real-estate market touch the full range of challenges that neighborhood leaders face daily: improving schools, reducing crime, maintaining public services and supporting positive youth development.

Moreover, here as across the country, suburbs are growing at the fastest rate in U.S. history; poor families with multiple problems are more densely concentrated in inner cities; and the drug trade is ready to take any weakly defended public space or abandoned building and turn it to its own version of a business use.

To fashion solutions, we must act deliberately but flexibly, build on neighborhood organizations, combine efforts and involve all agencies, community leaders and businesses with a stake in the outcome.

Think big! We need to look for the positive opportunity in the current situation. If we get beyond nostalgia for ''the way we were,'' we might find the potential to create a more attractive, less dense city. We might use what one national expert calls ''under-crowding'' to reconfigure space, create alternative uses for old sites and enhance marketability of remaining properties.

New uses for old land

Imagine not only old uses that were never on a given site (like side yards or small playgrounds) but uses that never existed in whole neighborhoods (parking, vegetable gardens, a sculpture park). Maybe relocating some uses within the neighborhood would allow the large-scale demolition some areas need.

Act deliberately but flexibly. The random character of abandonment means planning cannot proceed through universal prescriptions or city-wide schemes. The plan for the reuse of space must be accomplished neighborhood by neighborhood, almost block by block. And since, market forces are always dynamic, the engines and mechanisms of revitalization need constantly to be adjusted to be competitive.

Build on neighborhood organizations. To the extent that we need to be flexible and tailored in our neighborhood planning, we need even more the participation of long-term neighborhood residents. Fortunately, Baltimore is blessed with a dense network of community organizations.

Contract between neighbors

At the core of community is social contact between neighbors that sets standards for behavior, including property maintenance. The best situation exists when neighbor-to-neighbor pressure is reinforced by police powers, whether crime- or housing-code-oriented. Code enforcement is often the best prevention for abandonment. Every one of the houses in The Sun's articles started its slide into deterioration with small infringements on standards years ago.

In addition, the involvement of neighborhood organizations in planning brings an intelligence that is close to the ground, an imagination for uses that outsiders might not identify and a commitment to maintenance and new development.

The way the city has planned, for example, with the Franklin Square neighborhood in creating a block-by-block, multi-year plan for demolition and replacement captures the best of public-agency capability and neighborhood commitment. Community-based development organizations can be an important extension of this community cohesion and play an important role in redevelopment. We need the community organizations more than ever and need to invest in strengthening them.

Combine efforts and involve all parties. Since the situation is the result of many forces, some of them extraneous to housing or real-estate issues, we need to combine our efforts and make some improvement in each of the many forces that contribute.

Collective energy

Comprehensive action extends well beyond the agencies of the public sector. To grab hold of the market and exploit the opportunities inherent in the shrinking of the city requires the collective energy of city agencies, neighborhood organizations, nonprofit developers, businesses, for-profit real-estate entities, property owners and investors, financial institutions, utilities and virtually every public, private and nonprofit force with a stake in .. the city.

Collaborative effort of these sectors has been the clear hallmark of successful experience of civic renewal that we are seeing across the country. In a limited way, the Task Force on Substandard Housing convened by Commissioner Henson and including neighborhood leaders, property owners, housing organizations, private developers, city agencies and the judiciary is an example of a step in the right direction.

Next Saturday's Conference on Vacant Housing, sponsored the Citizens' Planning and Housing Association, is another step to involving all of Baltimore.

Yes, all! The fact is, no real-estate market operates in isolation. Deterioration and abandonment in large areas undermines the market even in the stronger city neighborhoods and in the counties. That civic responsibility and citizenship must now operate not only on the neighborhood but also on the metropolitan level is daunting but nonetheless necessary.

Joseph McNeely is CEO of the Development Training Institute and president of the Citizens' Planning and Housing Association.

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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