Rethinking plans for revitalization

January 09, 2001|By Charles Belfoure

"SOMETIMES YOU HAVE to be able to look reality in the eye and deny it," said Garrison Keillor, the writer and radio personality. Many urban revitalization plans have followed this advice and bit the dust.

The recently unveiled Midtown Community Plan seeks to revitalize several neighborhoods, most notably Mount Vernon. It's a noble effort since no other city can boast such a beautifully proportioned and humanely scaled streetscape. It contains some of the best 19th-century urban architecture in America.

So who's to quibble with such a plan? Well, let's look reality in the eye for a moment.

First, look at who wants to live in the city. The 2000 Census will reveal only a relatively small number of people wished to return to the city -- "empty nesters" and young professionals without children.

The once-affluent houses in Mount Vernon are usually 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, a size that empty nesters don't want. After all, they left their big houses in the suburbs in the first place because their kids moved out.

Young professionals couldn't afford such a place to use as a single-family residence. For example, a house that currently lists for $170,000 could need a total renovation at a cost of about $60 per square foot, meaning a total for a 3,000-square-foot house of $350,000.

The next neighborhoods in the city to be revitalized will be Locust Point and South Baltimore, whose housing stock is made up of two-story rowhouses averaging 1,200 square feet, a much more manageable size to own and rehabilitate.

But the city already has a realistic program to attract people back to downtown with its Class B office conversions, one that will dovetail nicely with the adjacent west-side renewal project.

Pre-war office buildings, architecturally distinguished but no longer able to attract business tenants, will offer renovated apartments or lofts at a reasonable size and price close to the Inner Harbor. They also provide the absolute prerequisite for city living -- 24-hour security.

The Midtown plan calls for a $40 million development bank to purchase about 200 properties and find "good people" for them. Even if it managed that feat, that leaves scores of Mount Vernon properties that have been sliced into a rabbit warren of apartments by landlords who have been less than diligent in screening tenants. That leads to Mount Vernon's biggest obstacle to rejuvenation.

Great architecture won't pull people into the city if they're scared for their lives. People are frightened of Mount Vernon.

The kiss of death for the neighborhood was the creation of Our Daily Bread, which brought in a homeless population rife with alcohol and substance-abuse problems. Though the soup kitchen will be moving out in a couple of years, it will take longer for the aura of danger to subside. The troubled Stafford Hotel, now a federally subsidized apartment house, is in the heart of Mount Vernon and may not be persuaded to go market rate.

The Midtown plan makes an apples-and-oranges comparison to the Otterbein, a much smaller, far more cohesive neighborhood than Mount Vernon. A dollar-house community of the 1970s with a more modest housing stock, its rehab legacy is very different.

Many factors go into making a neighborhood thrive. But the plan has an almost bizarre insistence that reducing north-south traffic is the linchpin to the whole scheme. It's ironic that the plan places so much faith in the hands of traffic engineers, given their insensitivity to inner cities since World War II.

Maybe the most troubling aspect of the plan is that Midtown really isn't so bad compared with some other neighborhoods in the city. During the boom economy, it has slowly improved on its own while other city communities have declined considerably. Those places don't have the clout to come up with their own $40 million fund to fix up their historically significant neighborhoods.

Just a fraction of that war chest could be an immense help to Forest Park, Reservoir Hill, Arlington, Howard Park, Edmondson Village or many other communities that are teetering on the brink of decline. No one seems to care about them. That's the sad reality.

Charles Belfoure, an architect and co-author of the "Baltimore Rowhouse" (Princeton Architectural Press, 1999), has profiled more than 40 neighborhoods for The Sun's Real Estate section.

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