Benefits district proposed to aid Park Heights revival

Property surcharge plan to be discussed tonight

May 22, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

These are crucial times in Park Heights.

A decade of declining population - 20 percent in some neighborhoods - and high crime has left many sections in this part of Northwest Baltimore scarred by vacant homes and empty storefronts. On top of that, city officials are considering closing two schools and a public library.

Area leaders are trying to turn Park Heights around. There's talk of supermarkets possibly moving in along West Belvedere Avenue. A golf center is planned for a park. The state recently promised a $750,000 bond for a community arts center on Pimlico Road.

And now, a major effort is under way to turn the area into a community benefits district.

"There are enormous needs here," said Diane Frederick, executive director of Northwest Baltimore Corp. "If [the benefits district] is successful and organized and well-managed, it will be a wonderful asset to this community."

If approved, the benefits district proposal could cost homeowners and business owners an additional $55 to $72 each in taxes every year. The money would be designated for community projects agreed upon by a local board of directors. Though specific projects have yet to be identified, cleaning up Park Heights is high on everyone's list.

Supporters will make their pitch tonight at a Town Hall meeting. Plans call for an election June 28 that will be open to all registered voters and business owners within the proposed benefits district.

Successful benefits districts exist in Charles Village and Midtown/Bolton Hill - smaller neighborhoods with better housing stock and less severe problems. The downtown business area also is a special tax district.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Democrat who represents the Park Heights area, believes the concept of letting the community decide how to address its problems can work in the proposed benefits district - an area bounded generally by West Northern Parkway, Wabash and Greenspring avenues and Druid Park Drive.

"People will ultimately decide exactly what they want to do," said Marriott. "We may not want to do public safety the way they do it in Charles Village or Midtown because our problems are different."

She and others say a major challenge is bringing together the diverse neighborhoods that make up Park Heights and persuading people to support a tax increase.

They estimate the proposed surcharge on area properties - ranging from 12 cents to 16 cents per $100 of assessed value - could raise $500,000 to $700,000 a year. To some, the tax is a small price to pay to improve the community.

However, Paul Blinken, owner of Cinderella Shoes, is loath to support another tax.

"Why should we pay more out of our own pockets to get what we should be getting?" he asked.

Marriott said she tried to get city officials to buy into the idea several years ago, but then-Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III wasn't interested.

Marriott refused to drop the idea. Two years ago, she sought help from the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Soon, there was a $75,000 block grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development to help organize the effort.

The measure needs the support of 58 percent of those voting in the special election, though final approval lies with the City Council.

Fifth District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, a Democrat who represents the area, said she does not expect any opposition from her colleagues.

"We desperately need this kind of renewal," Spector said. "One thing is not going to fix it, it's going to take all efforts - the legislators, the homeowners, everybody."

The Town Hall meeting begins at 7 p.m. at Cornerstone Church of Christ, 4237 Park Heights Ave. Information: 410-542-6610.

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