Troubled area sees progress, challenge

Pennsylvania Ave. renewal noted, but work remains


January 27, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

In a series of sometimes explosive meetings during the summer of 2002, a group of Westminster residents and government officials debated how to best revitalize the troubled neighborhood around Pennsylvania Avenue.

After four months, a 40- member task force issued sweeping recommendations to fight drug-related crimes, prostitution and burglary, as well as rejuvenate the area by encouraging homeownership and holding landlords accountable for code violations.

A year and a half later, city officials and residents say the community encompassing Pennsylvania Avenue and West Main Street has improved - there is less criminal activity on the streets and more cohesiveness among neighbors.

But they say more needs to be done to create a safer and better neighborhood.

"Of course progress and change are in the winds, but there are things that still need to be in place," said Darcel Harris, a member of Lower Pennsylvania Avenue Advisory Task Force who has lived on the street for 11 years. The task force was created from community members and government officials.

Added Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works, "When this started, there was open drug dealing on the streets. ... There is always work to be done, but there have been success stories."

Among the 21 recommendations issued by the task force in October 2002, Westminster has adopted or acted on more than half of them. The group's proposals focused on five areas: code enforcement, crime prevention, landlord accountability, local zoning code and homeownership initiatives.

So far, the city has passed an ordinance requiring registration of all rental properties and expanded its maintenance code to include owner-occupied buildings.

The city also sought state grants and recently received $75,000 to split between a homeownership program that encourages the purchase of older homes, including those on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a project to upgrade the street's lights.

The final design phase to install brighter street lights on Pennsylvania Avenue is scheduled to go out for bids soon, city officials said.

Other recommendations in the works include installing emergency telephone booths linking directly to police dispatchers, and streetscape improvements to reduce traffic along Pennsylvania Avenue. Money for these projects are expected to be included in the city's future budgets.

Some changes, Councilman Robert Wack said, are harder to notice because they are under the radar.

"The perfect example is the law-enforcement efforts," he said. "A lot of it is undercover, and you don't hear about it until it's done."

Most of the recommendations focused on ways to fight crime.

While police have increased patrols in the neighborhood, some of the more ambitious recommendations - including providing economic subsidies, such as rent, for police officers who choose to live in the area and establishing a substation there - are still being evaluated, said Westminster Police Chief Jeffrey Spaulding.

"Certainly, [the Police Department] has been working on these issues prior to my arrival, and we'll continue to work on them," said Spaulding, who became police chief Jan. 2. "There are active residents over there ... and the more interaction we have, the better chance we have for long-term progress."

Several recommendations that were adopted, including creating an emergency cell phone program and establishing a citizens block watch, have garnered very few participants, Spaulding said.

"Now I need to sit down with my staff and talk about where we stand, and where we could make short- and long-term progress" on improving the Pennsylvania Avenue neighborhood, Spaulding said.

Residents who served on the task force said they expected their proposals to be adopted more quickly.

Nevertheless, they noted several positive outcomes as a result of their work, including better interaction with city government and a stronger relationship with state law enforcement officials.

"Any time you live in a problem area and you get attention and people are coming up with solutions, it's always beneficial," said Lori Graham, owner of Dutterer Flower Shop on Pennsylvania Avenue. "Just getting the community itself to talk and to know who your neighbors are, it's beneficial."

Despite the city's efforts in putting several recommendations into practice, task force member Rebecca Orenstein said Westminster leaders need to be more aggressive in holding landlords accountable for code violations.

Noting the lack of action on a proposal to require landlords to obtain a license after their buildings have passed inspections, Orenstein said, "The legislators and the mayor, they need to exercise their muscle on one or two landlords who operate outside the law."

Councilman Roy L. Chiavacci, who is a member of the task force, said city officials and the state's attorney's office have been talking about putting "more teeth in the existing nuisance-abatement laws" to take action against problem landlords.

"We are categorizing and identifying those areas," he said. "In an appropriate time, we'll take action."

Most recently, the city and residents have been debating a proposal to expand Westminster's business district west along Pennsylvania Avenue into the primarily residential area.

There was disagreement among task force members on recommending a zoning amendment that would allow establishment of light businesses, such as coffeehouses and art galleries, from West Main Street to Sullivan Avenue.

At a public hearing last week, a majority of residents said they opposed changing the neighborhood's character.

"Ultimately, we'll respect the community's opinions on it, but that was one of the things recommended by the group," Wack said. "We're trying to be responsive."

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