Creativity, vision needed to save this great city

September 06, 1999|By James W. Rouse Jr.

ONE OF the key issues that has come out of the mayoral campaign is the feeling that it is time for the city to invest in its neighborhoods.

The argument is presented that the city has invested millions in downtown development on the theory that the benefits would spill out to the neighborhoods. But, in fact, the neighborhoods are no better off than they were 18 years ago when Harborplace was built. So, it is time to focus on our neighborhoods.

We have no other choice. The fate of the neighborhoods and downtown are inextricably linked. Investment in one cannot proceed and be successful without investment in the other.

Why? Because city government, whether it realizes it or not, is a business. It has an income (taxes and other revenue sources) and expenses, like any business.

Every year at budget time we hear the mayor cry out desperately that he needs to reduce expenditures by cutting such essential services as police, recreation centers, libraries, substance abuse clinics, etc.

But no business can survive looking only at cutting its expense side. What about finding creative ways to increase the city's income?

Raising taxes or instituting a commuter tax would have a net effect of decreasing income by driving people away from the city. We are already losing 1,000 residents a month.

What we need to do is find ways of increasing income without adding new taxes or increasing the tax rate. More than one-quarter of the city's revenues come from property taxes.

Since 1990, property values in the Central Business District, the Charles Street corridor, Mount Vernon and many of the older neighborhoods have fallen by more than one-third. This represents a huge loss to the city, coupled with the loss from a declining residential base.

Yet this loss can be reversed, adding millions of dollars to the city coffers. And the good news is that the cost of this reversal is minimal, especially compared with the millions being invested in creating a single Inner Harbor East hotel.

Renewal

Renewing our older neighborhoods requires minimal investment coupled with creative marketing because there are already substantial market forces at work that favor retail, residential and office redevelopment of our older downtown neighborhoods.

Witness the recent success of Boxer Properties in leasing Class B office space and Southern Management in renovating residential buildings downtown. The way not to redevelop downtown is the wholesale condemnation and demolition of historic buildings for parking garages (Redwood Street, the Alex. Brown garage). Or for the benefit of developers, so that they can replicate suburbia downtown, as promoted by some for the west side of downtown and other city neighborhoods.

As Denver, Cleveland, Chicago and Portland, Ore., and New York and many other older cities have already demonstrated, we need to build on what we have: our uniqueness, our historic architecture and our ethic diversity. It is cheaper and more effective.

This will help us to have the funds to work on redeveloping our neighborhoods. You will never have a successful downtown surrounded by poverty stricken ghettos.

My father, the late James Rouse, the developer of Harborplace, spent the last 15 years of his life trying to demonstrate that it is cheaper to fix up our neighborhoods than to maintain them in their present condition.

Live Baltimore, BUILD and the Citizens Planning and Housing Association's Neighborhood Congress, among others, have been investigating cost-effective and immediate ways of reversing the outward flow of residents.

These programs will also help increase our tax base so that more money will be available for neighborhood redevelopment. The spiral will flow upward rather than downward.

Everyone in the city -- rich, middle class and poor, black, white, brown and Asian -- is in the same boat. We must learn to row together or our boat will spin aimlessly and be subjected to whatever tides prevail. This is our present state.

It is not a debate of neighborhoods vs. downtown. We all need each other. A true leader will show us how our fates are intertwined.

James W. Rouse Jr. is president of the Historic Charles Street Association.

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