Former housing official works to revitalize city

Healthy Neighborhoods' new leader targets 10 areas for improvement

April 26, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Over the past 25 years, Mark Sissman has been Baltimore's deputy housing commissioner, president of a nonprofit investment corporation, a banker and a key player in the redevelopment of the Hippodrome, the $70 million downtown performing arts center that opened in February.

The 59-year-old lawyer has made another career change. With Clear Channel Communications in day-to-day control of the Hippodrome, Sissman has moved over to be the head of Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., an ambitious drive to improve 10 Baltimore communities and turn them into hot real estate commodities.

Sissman says those neighborhoods are trying to attract the same kinds of venturesome people who more than 20 years ago turned areas like Otterbein near the Inner Harbor into urban-homesteading showpieces.

"They were people who were energized by the city. They were professionals. They had the financial and organizational wherewithal to cope with the challenges of rehabbing. They were younger rather than older," he explained. "I'm finding people who have the same energy today in Healthy Neighborhoods."

It was in his new capacity last week that during a tour of the neighborhood Sissman ran into Victor Martinez, who is doing the kinds of things that Healthy Neighborhoods wants duplicated citywide.

Martinez, a 67-year-old Venezuelan immigrant, related how he was searching the Internet for an affordable dream house. He jumped on the chance when he saw a foreclosed wreck in West Baltimore, even though that meant a daily 60-mile roundtrip commute to his job as an assistant manager of a Pizza Hut in Silver Spring.

Spending $75,000 on acquisition and $100,000 on repairs, Martinez and his wife have restored the stately columned house to its former glory. With its rose garden and rediscovered fish pond, it is now the showpiece of the 2800 block of Roslyn Ave. in Garwyn Oaks, a Healthy Neighborhoods area in Northwest Baltimore.

"Things are happening here," Sissman said as he toured the neighborhood.

Next door to Martinez, who is not receiving funds from the program, a contractor was working to bring a vacant $40,000 shell back to life for a homeowner who is using $108,000 in Healthy Neighborhoods loans and grants for the face-lift.

As large and small improvements have spread, homeowners and landlords have taken a new interest in their community, and new residents have come from as far as New York and Salisbury, said Rita Fayall, a Garwyn Oaks resident and community organizer. As a result, housing demand and prices have risen.

In his new job at Healthy Neighborhoods, Sissman hopes to bring more sizzle not only to Garwyn Oaks, but also to the program's other target neighborhoods: Belair-Edison, Ednor Gardens, Midtown, Patterson Park, Reservoir Hill, Southern Mondawmin, Charles Village, greater Lauraville and the area that the Southeast Community Development Corp. covers.

Healthy Neighborhoods was started three years ago by the city, with the support of Baltimore Community Foundation, along with the Abell and Goldseker foundations. In its first three years, Sissman estimates that the push generated $5 million in private and public funding to revitalize neighborhoods.

Patterned on a concept pioneered in Grand Rapids, Mich., the drive works to increase demand for housing in targeted neighborhoods, where certain blocks have been selected for the program. The goal is to convince prospective buyers and existing residents that it makes economic sense for them to invest time, energy and money in those areas. Healthy Neighborhoods then provides below-market loans, using money from private and public sources.

In his new endeavor, Sissman has his work cut out for him. If neighborhoods like those in the program are to win wider favor, he needs cooperation from the real estate industry. Yet, after three years as a pilot program, Healthy Neighborhoods apparently remains a hazy concept.

"I know broadly, conceptually, what it is supposed to do," Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, said last week before talking with Sissman. "But I don't know what they can point to as accomplishments."

An in-house assessment of the Healthy Neighborhoods initiative's first three years points to such feats as brisker sales, higher prices, growing investment for improvements and increased levels of community involvement. But the initiative's identity seems fuzzy because much of supervising was done by consultants, and work was contracted out to local community groups, which may get all the credit.

"It's a good program," Mayor Martin O'Malley said of Healthy Neighborhoods. But he said he is "excited" about Sissman's appointment to strengthen it and bring it "to another level."

This will require stepped-up local and national fund raising from the private and public sectors as well as foundation sources, Sissman said.

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