Panel studies ways to draw people to city

Mayoral council aims to attract, retain residents

`Smooth out rough spots'

Financial assistance would help buyers and neighborhoods

September 04, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Hoping to capitalize on a perceived increased interest in urban living, a broad-based mayoral commission has begun brainstorming ways to attract more new residents to Baltimore and keep those who live here from leaving.

Composed of top city officials, real estate and banking executives, private developers and nonprofit groups involved in housing issues, the Mayor's Council on City Living is charged with examining the effectiveness of existing programs and suggesting new ones.

"The mayor clearly is very enthusiastic about city living and thinks now the time is ripe for us to more formally promote this," said Paul T. Graziano, the city's housing commissioner and co-chairman of the council with Jim Piper, executive vice president of the real estate firm O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA.

Some older cities -- notably New York and Chicago -- that had experienced decreases in population rebounded in the 1990s to show a gain in residents, according to census data released this year. Population declines in some other cities leveled off.

In contrast, Baltimore lost 84,860 people during the past decade, more than any of 243 cities nationwide with populations above 100,000, census figures show.

Other data show that despite a net loss in population, thousands of people move into Baltimore each year. There are indications the gap is closing between the number moving out and the number moving in.

City officials and boosters see signs of vitality in the creation of hundreds of rental apartments downtown, and in the strength of the residential real estate market in established northern neighborhoods like Mount Washington and newly trendy waterfront communities like Canton. But the vast majority of the city has seen a decline in population and a rise in vacant housing.

"Certainly we have seen mixed results in Baltimore," Graziano acknowledged. "Many neighborhoods are red hot and flourishing and thriving. Others are not. We want to see what we might be doing to smooth out the rough spots."

The council's executive committee will hold its inaugural meeting tomorrow, and the full committee will meet next week for the first time since Mayor Martin O'Malley brought the group together for a brief ceremony in July to thank the members for agreeing to serve.

Some of the council's four subcommittees -- on new housing, existing housing, policy and marketing -- have begun to meet.

Last week, the subcommittee on existing housing -- of which Thomas Jaudon, head of the city housing department's Homeownership Institute, and Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, are co-chairmen -- met for the first time. Members discussed ideas ranging from sprucing up thoroughfares into the city to creating a pool of money that developers and individuals could use to revitalize neglected properties.

"We need a pot of tens of millions of dollars for people who want to rehab houses," said Bill Pencek, deputy director of the Maryland Historical Trust.

Another suggestion was to direct city resources to areas that are beginning to show signs of revitalization but need more help, rather than scattering them in neighborhoods throughout Baltimore.

"Where there's money and work going on, let's throw everything we can to make it work," said Tracy Gosson, director of the nonprofit Live Baltimore Marketing Center, which promotes city living.

To a degree, that's beginning to be done.

Last year, the city launched a "Healthy Neighborhoods" initiative, marshaling millions of dollars in public and private support for new and existing homeowners in an effort to provide a boost to six basically solid communities battling decay: Belair-Edison, eastern Reservoir Hill, Garwyn Oaks, Midtown-Belvedere, Patterson Park and Southern Mondawmin.

Now the city is attempting to provide another boost to these neighborhoods by modifying its successful employee homeownership program that provides money to help city workers buy homes.

Suspended in December when it ran out of money but scheduled to be reinstated this month, the recast 4-year-old program will offer an additional $500, for a total of $3,500, to those who buy in the "Healthy Neighborhoods." At the same time, the program will exclude the use of the money in neighborhoods such as Roland Park and Federal Hill, where the market is strong enough that public incentives are not needed to draw homebuyers.

The council also hopes to draw on the results of a study of tax-incentive programs for city homeowners being conducted by planning consultant Alfred W. Barry III for the nonprofit Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation. The study will examine how to better administer and promote various programs, including historic and new-construction credits, and also look at what's being done in other cities.

"There's no one desk in city government where someone who wanted to know about all the programs could go and get complete information, submit the applications and be qualified," said Karen Footner, a foundation director.

Many obstacles to attracting and retaining residents, such as the city's troubled though improving school system, are beyond the scope of the council, said Footner, who serves on the panel.

Still, she said, "There's a feeling of enthusiasm about its prospects."

Piper said the composition of the council, which he describes as "people in positions of authority and decision-making," makes him hopeful that the council could "make a difference."

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