20-year blueprint for city unveiled

First plan since 1971 gives ideas, stark facts

April 22, 1999|By Gerard Shields and Jamie Stiehm | Gerard Shields and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A common chorus among Baltimore critics is that the city has too long lacked a vision or plan.

Today, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will present the city's first Comprehensive Plan since 1971, a 20-year blueprint suggesting strategies for neighborhood preservation, tourism, parks, transportation, schools and crime.

The 228-page document, replete with charts and graphics, is the result of 15 months of open meetings between city planners and 5,000 city residents from all corners and walks of life pitching their ideas of what they want Baltimore to be.

In addition to calling for the city to tap into international tourism, the $500,000 study encourages strengthening the city's neighborhood charm while fostering the move toward regional government with Baltimore "still the center of the region," said city planning director Charles C. Graves III.

Yet in addition to providing hope for the next century, the plan stands as a stark snapshot of what a city that was once a catalyst for the nation's industrial revolution has become: a service-oriented city grappling with seemingly intractable problems such as violent crime, drug abuse, high unemployment and housing vacancies.

City planners view the document as a comprehensive battle plan to attack those trends.

"It lays out on paper what the strategy should be," said Graves.

The release of the plan occurs at a critical juncture as Baltimore faces its first mayoral race without an incumbent in 28 years. City leaders acknowledge making the wish list a reality will be a long, difficult process.

Baltimore has suffered about 300 murders a year for the past decade, has an adult population in which one of every eight is a drug addict, and fights a 9.5 percent unemployment rate double the national average. The common force driving these woes is poverty -- the city houses seven of every 10 of the region's poor.

"We recognize that the city has limited resources," Graves added. "But we're not starting over. This is really building on our strengths."

Among the wish list is:

Creating a "24-hour" downtown. With plans to renovate the west side of downtown, the city hopes to revitalize the city center by catering and adding to the two demographic groups showing rising interest in living in the city: college students and empty nesters.

Rebuilding neighborhoods. The plan ratifies the city's goal to aggressively demolish up to 12,000 homes over the next decade and use the open space for new, less dense housing and green space.

Returning the city's business focus on the harbor as more than a tourist attraction. The biggest challenge will be to redevelop port-related industrial land, including 727 Baltimore acres.

The release of the document eight months before the end of Schmoke's 12-year tenure will serve as a foundation for dialogue among the city's mayoral candidates. The pages clearly spell out the challenges that loom.

The report shows that four of 10 adult residents have not completed high school, one of the lowest rankings in major U.S. cities. Half of all Baltimore homes were built before 1945 and the number of vacant homes has practically doubled over the past 20 years.

In this decade alone, one out of every 10 Baltimore residents have moved.

Despite the arrival of a new mayor, city planners have no fear their two years of work will be drastically altered. Releasing the plan is only the first phase of the process. Implementing it -- including a revision of the city zoning laws -- could take as long as a decade.

Among issues to be addressed are poor regional air quality and a downtown parking problem, which, the document states, will not be solved by simply building more garages. One suggested solution to environmental, traffic and parking problems is developing a bicycle route master plan connecting roads, parks and greenways.

The one constant that will remain are the active city residents who helped formulate the ideas, including schoolchildren who participated through a $60,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"This document is developed from the citizens and from the voters," Graves said. "It really should be a guide."

Yet, some Baltimoreans expressed concerns about the process. "I didn't get the sense the plan was going to be very specific about what was going to happen where," said Jamie Hunt, president of the Radnor/Winston neighborhood group. "With big and little ticket items, I'd like to hear, here's how they fit together."

Residents can obtain a copy of the document for $10 or find it in all city library branches. The plan includes an e-mail address of planbaltimore@yahoo.com for those wishing to comment.

Two meetings for public comment will be held: 7 p.m. May 4 at Harbor Hospital on 3001 S. Hanover St. and 7 p.m. May 18 at Roland Park Middle School, 5207 Roland Ave.

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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