Baltimore is looking like demolition city Wrecking balls: Plans for neighborhoods are circumvented as houses are razed at a record rate.

June 27, 1998

AFTER YEARS of ignoring the growing problem of abandoned houses, the city is razing derelict buildings at a record rate. "For the next couple of years, you will see an awful lot of demolition," pledges Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who intends to increase the number from 1,750 buildings to 2,500 a year.

As cranes and bulldozers wipe out derelict blocks, it is becoming clear that Mr. Henson, using bureaucratic powers that are not subject to anyone's review, is conducting planning by demolition. With the stroke of his pen, he can circumvent neighborhood blueprints or disregard efforts by the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.

Some of Mr. Henson's most visible recent demolition activities have been along Pennsylvania Avenue. A block of old brick rowhouses near St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church was felled to create a redevelopment area. Several derelict properties nearby, which had harbored prostitutes and drug addicts, were also razed. More is to come. In the end, most of the old Pennsylvania Avenue may be cleared, except for five commercial blocks around the refurbished Avenue Market.

Much of this demolition will be in accordance with approved plans to replace the four high-rises of the Murphy Homes public housing project with a low-density, mixed-income community. But communication has been so poor that five churches convened a protest meeting Wednesday.

Additional large-scale demolition along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, which was the main commercial and entertainment strip for African-Americans in segregated Baltimore, is scheduled in the coming months. Elsewhere in the city, Mr. Henson's bulldozers are involved mostly in smaller projects, taking down scattered houses and creating snaggletooth blocks whose long-term viability is questionable.

The housing commissioner is within his rights to act as long as those structures pose a safety hazard. But demolition in some neighborhoods is taking place on a scale that suggests it is designed to circumvent time-consuming planning processes. That is not a prudent approach.

Pub Date: 6/27/98

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