Neighborhood leader `moving on' after gains

Community district plan is proven, Sparks says

August 26, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Sandra Sparks, executive director of the Midtown Community District since 1998 and an advocate for more lively city parks, resigned this month. A Midtown staff member, Charles L. Smith, has been named to serve as interim director while a search for her successor takes place.

"I'm moving on," Sparks said in her Charles Village home Friday, as she patched the dining room walls. "I'm still deeply committed to the concept of a community benefits district as a model for revitalizing diverse city neighborhoods. I worked hard to make it viable."

After nine years as the Greater Homewood Community Corp.'s executive director, followed by four years in the Midtown position, Sparks said she would look for prospects in fields other than nonprofit community organizing. She gave no specific reason for resigning.

The Midtown organization, established in 1996, followed a Charles Village example of a local community voting to tax itself for services beyond what the city provides to keep streets safer and cleaner. This year, the organization's tax revenue, paid by every property owner, is expected to top $500,000.

`Vision' of potential

Four neighborhoods make up the Midtown benefits district, which encompasses Pennsylvania Station: Mount Vernon-Belvedere, Charles North, Bolton Hill and Madison Park. Its boundaries are North Avenue, Madison Avenue, Park Avenue, Centre Street, Guilford Avenue and Calvert Street.

The Midtown community plan, which arose from dozens of forums open to the district's 13,000 residents, was Sparks' signature achievement, she and Midtown officials said.

"Her vision means she can look at the urban environment and see what can happen," Smith, 39, the former director of operations, said. Starting the Midtown Development Corp. to buy and fix troublesome properties was another innovation.

A work-in-progress, Sparks said, is a committee on creating an legal code to apply to future redevelopment. A fragile balance hangs between the district's tall, handsome rowhouses, shabby blocks with no signs of life and its urban bustle.

The planning document, drafted in 2000, gives specific remedies for improving transportation, parking and streetscapes. Not shy about borrowing from other neighborhoods' successes, it suggested that replicating Otterbein's street lamps on residential blocks and Federal Hill's plastic bag dispensers for dog waste would upgrade life in Midtown.

To thin traffic through the Midtown area, the community plan proposed that city officials close the Jones Falls Expressway exit onto St. Paul Street.

Possible successor

Sparks said she had no regrets about her decision to resign, adding that the only piece of business that seems unfinished is the City Council reauthorization of the benefits district, which would otherwise expire next year.

Smith, an Illinois native, said he probably would apply to succeed Sparks. An avid restorer of vintage houses, Smith said he has lived in three houses in Charles North, near Baltimore's train station, in the past 14 years. Smith graduated from the University of Baltimore with a degree in public administration, he said.

Smith said he believed that the benefits district concept would only become more timely for neighborhoods in the heart of cities like Baltimore.

"I believe we have to become more independent from the city," he said. "To attract people to the rowhouse environment, we need to improve the parks and other amenities."

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