Planning upheaval

November 02, 2003

OTIS ROLLEY III, who became Baltimore's planning director in August, is cleaning house. Most current employees, including key managers, have been told to reapply for jobs in a reorganized department - in competition with outsiders. Karen Hilton, the highly regarded deputy director, has already resigned; others may leave as well.

This is a painful overhaul - and long overdue.

The Planning Department should be the municipal government's think tank. It ought to generate unconventional ideas and translate them into workable and exciting conceptual blueprints. Moreover, it should guide growth and investment within the city and recommend imaginative solutions to seemingly intractable urban problems.

Baltimore's planning agency, unfortunately, has fallen woefully short.

It became so lethargic and irrelevant during Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 12-year tenure that it did not even update Baltimore's master plan. As a consequence, the city's latest comprehensive vision of its long-term future dates to the 1970s. No wonder Baltimore reaped scant benefits from the boom times of the 1990s, when other U.S. cities thrived.

Increasingly, private consultants working on specific projects - and for developers who hired them - have filled the vacuum. But this has led to piecemeal planning that lacks both vision and a sense of priorities.

"It's very dangerous not to have a plan in place for the city," says Mr. Rolley; he pledges to have a new master plan ready within 14 months.

At 29, Mr. Rolley is a young man in a hurry. He wants to re-establish his agency's pre-eminence in planning questions over such rivals as the departments of transportation, public works and housing, where he was a deputy commissioner. A clear pecking order is needed, he says, to ensure that capital expenditures are used most productively.

Mr. Rolley is on the right track. Far too often in the past, the capital improvement program's impact has been lessened because allocations have reflected only various agencies' own imperatives, not citywide priorities. That must be corrected.

During his first months as planning chief, Mr. Rolley has demonstrated that he has Mayor Martin O'Malley's ear. That channel serves both men well. The mayor needs expert advice on physical development issues, which seldom seem to interest him.

In his conversations with the mayor, Mr. Rolley should underscore the need for consistent development requirements and predictable processes. These are essential if Baltimore is to attract sorely needed investment for neighborhood revitalization as well as overall economic development.

The Planning Department must also reassert its role as a critic of topical development controversies. For example, planners should tell the politicians - and the public - whether land near unused piers in Locust Point should be retained for port-related purposes or might be better exploited as residential and commercial developments.

By giving salient advice, the Planning Department could again become the kind of respected referee it once was. Today's City Hall surely needs professional planners' impartial recommendations.

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