Rebuilding, block by block

Change: The Belair-Edison neighborhood has begun a broad project to build community leaders, increase home ownership and upgrade the houses that line its streets.

November 17, 1999|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Planners and activists throughout Baltimore are hopeful that a unique development plan designed to boost property values, image and community togetherness can help revive the city's struggling working-class neighborhoods.

In a few years, they should see results in the east-side neighborhood of Belair-Edison.

There, a small community nonprofit group is in the first stages of implementing the Healthy Neighborhoods concept, an aggressive strategy gaining national attention after redeveloping severely blighted neighborhoods in Battle Creek, Mich., over the past seven years.

The concept is simple, operating on the premise that stagnant, working-class neighborhoods need to raise their expectations and become competitive again in the city's real estate market. Observers in Baltimore's planning community hail the grass-roots concept for its breadth and comprehensiveness.

"It could help spark a neighborhood-based renaissance in the city," said Steve Broache, housing director for the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "If this thing takes off, the positives for Belair-Edison, and for the whole city, will be amazing."

The plan has three fundamental goals for Belair-Edison, a community that for the past two decades has been trying to recover from years of white flight and commercial decline.

First, property values must rise, no small feat in a neighborhood where housing prices have remained steady at about $55,000 throughout the decade.

Boosting values, the theory goes, would give longtime residents reason to stay and invite potential middle-class buyers to invest. It also would increase "real wealth" in a neighborhood where the median income is about $32,000 per household and allow residents to add to the neighborhood by spending more money on their homes and in the small commercial district on Belair Road.

Second, the neighborhood, which has begun to gain a reputation as a place where crime and uncaring renters are on the rise, must aggressively market itself to potential buyers by emphasizing its positives: thousands of well-designed and well-built rowhouses, a nearby municipal golf course and Herring Run nature reserve.

Third, the neighborhood must develop community organizers by offering leadership courses and regular social events, with the goal of creating a cadre of homeowners who would faithfully patrol their neighborhood and work to improve it.

Healthy Neighborhoods is the brainchild of David J. Boehlke, a Washington-based planner who developed the concept and used it in Battle Creek. The 52-year-old has a long history in Baltimore planning circles, having worked to rejuvenate Patterson Park in the late 1970s. Today, he is a consultant to the Belair-Edison Housing Service, the nonprofit group that began implementing the plan in January.

Boehlke, who advises more than 100 neighborhoods nationwide on his concept, starts with a fundamental vision of what makes a community successful.

"Neighborhoods that thrive are places where there is confidence in real estate and confidence in community, where the best possible homeowners live," he said. "Not rich or even middle-class people necessarily, but people with character who show they can follow through, that they can take care of the place they live. That's all we're asking for in Belair-Edison."

The plan has some detractors in the neighborhood of 16,000 -- people who worry that rising property values will increase their tax burden and say it fails to deal with crime -- but overall it couldn't be more welcome.

"Something must be done," observed Jeff Whitley, 26, as he grilled onions at Deano's pizzeria. "It's an unsettling feeling, to know this place is just sitting in the middle like it is. Belair-Edison could get better, or it could go to hell in a handbasket."

The neighborhood has a split personality. Much of it bustles with signs of modest pride -- solidly built rowhouses decorated with flags and flowers, well-manicured yards, and ponds. The commercial strip is sputtering along with a few new specialty restaurants and a soon-to-be-constructed CVS drugstore.

But there is an underside: rising crime, obvious signs of benign neglect and an increase in absentee home ownership, something development experts agree has led to the devastation of nearby neighborhoods in East Baltimore.

To battle threats to the neighborhood, the Belair-Edison Housing Service's director, Barbara Aylesworth, will try to make her version of Healthy Neighborhoods look like the one in Battle Creek. Aylesworth, 46, comes armed with a $150,000 grant, made in January, from the Baltimore Neighborhood Coalition.

The key to the Battle Creek plan, which started in 1992, was a loan fund -- opened with about $130,000 in foundation and city money for each of three large neighborhoods there -- for home and apartment improvement.

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