Public housing's new look Replacement for Lafayette Courts: Townhouse design in place of high-rises reflects national trend to make projects more workable.

October 06, 1997

PLEASANT VIEW Gardens suggests a suburban subdivision of carefree faces, manicured lawns and relaxing barbecues. It is also Baltimore's newest public housing project -- the former Lafayette Courts, next to the Main Post Office on Fayette Street.

Pleasant View Gardens represents a radical departure from the public housing architecture and design of the 1940s and 1950s, when most of the big projects were built here.

Gone are the six high-rise towers and the 17 low-rise structures, which packed in 807 units on 21.5 acres. In their place are 228 newly constructed townhouses, many of them for sale, and 110 apartments for the elderly.

By 2002, the city hopes to replace the rest of its troubled high-rise projects with smaller townhouse and garden apartment communities. Similar replacement is happening nationwide.

This federally financed substitution program, costing several hundred million dollars in Baltimore alone, is an exciting experiment. It will change the appearance of several neighborhoods ringing downtown and rates as one of the main achievements of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 10 years in office.

Even when all of them were still standing, the big high-rises accounted for only one-sixth of the Housing Authority's 18,000 units sheltering 70,000 people. But the towers were the most visible part of the government's low-income housing effort and its failure to deal with the attendant social problems.

The remaining high-rises are now disappearing. Construction of townhouses will soon begin at the site of the former Lexington Terrace, off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, west of the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus. Meanwhile, word is expected shortly on federal funds to demolish nearby Murphy Homes.

The final tower project to be replaced is Flag House Courts, north of Little Italy.

"The idea clearly is to make a major change not only in public housing but in downtown Baltimore," says Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who himself grew up in a public housing development. "On my watch, I want to start to break up the concentration of poverty."

The question is: Does this make any sense? Can it succeed? Or is it just money down the drain?

Tomorrow: High-cost housing for the poor.

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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