Development matters

April 04, 2003

IT'S GOOD THAT Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is concerned about the safety of the nation's cities. But there's an issue closer to home that requires his attention as well.

Consider: Since the beginning of November, when Charles C. Graves III moved to Atlanta, Baltimore has been without a planning director. Soon thereafter, Laurie Schwartz, who was the deputy mayor in charge of development, resigned and was not replaced. Now Alexandra Hughes, who has represented Mr. O'Malley on the planning commission since then, is leaving. Meanwhile, the mayor is sitting on a list of three finalists for the planning director's job.

The mayor's indifference is disappointing, but not surprising. Planning blueprints, zoning and financing arrangements fail to excite him. That's why he ought to have a team of experienced top-level advisers flagging his attention to important policy and development issues.

With 18 months remaining in his first term, the mayor should focus on a number of questions that are pivotal for Baltimore's future.

Mayor O'Malley must initiate an overall land-use plan for residential and commercial areas that are being abandoned.

Without such a comprehensive strategy, his ambitious goal for the city to acquire 5,000 vacant houses for redevelopment makes little sense. The mayor must seize this opportunity to remake the city by establishing a land bank to coordinate these activities.

A population goal must be set for a future Baltimore.

Since 1950, the city has lost one-third of its residents. If the city does not start growing again, more neighborhoods will wither away and the economy will constrict. A drive is needed to recruit new residents, focusing on homebuyers from the District of Columbia area in particular as well as immigrants. That's the quickest way to increase population and reinvigorate the economy.

Neighborhood revitalization must be linked to efforts to improve public transit in Baltimore.

As housing prices and traffic congestion keep increasing around the region, living in Baltimore offers distinct advantages. The long-term viability of many west- and east-side residential neighborhoods is tied to a proposed rail line that would connect Woodlawn and White Marsh. Such a line, like the existing passenger service between Perryville and Washington, would offer commuting flexibility to city residents.

Further harbor development must be mapped out.

With the booming shoreline from Canton to Locust Point being built out, the city must rethink the rest of the underused harbor. Should Locust Point continue to be restricted to industrial purposes? What would be the best uses along the Middle Branch from Westport to Brooklyn? That neglected area could be the next Inner Harbor.

These are just a few of the planning opportunities that City Hall is not pursuing because no one is focusing on them. There are other efforts that must be nurtured and completed, including the long-overdue revision of the city's zoning code.

Despite the rocky national economy, real estate investors keep showing a remarkable interest in Baltimore. Key projects are moving ahead, including the redevelopment of the old retail area near Lexington Market. But even more could be done. For that to happen, though, Mayor O'Malley must develop an interest in planning issues. And the first step in that direction is to name a planning director.

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