Taking the city's snapshot

Urban Chronicle

Scholar: The new University of Baltimore provost is impressed by his new community's rich history but shocked by the depth of its housing troubles.

Urban Chronicle

September 02, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

IF YOU had just a couple of hours to take a respected urban scholar new to the city on a tour to show Baltimore's problems and progress, where would you go?

And what would his reaction be to what he saw?

The scholar is Wim Wiewel, the new provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Baltimore.

Before coming to Baltimore, Wiewel served separate stints as dean of the College of Business Administration and of the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he established the school's Great Cities Institute. His books include When Corporations Leave Town, about the loss of jobs from cities to suburbs, and Urban-Suburban Interdependencies, and he is co-editor of a forthcoming volume titled The University as Developer: The University, the City and Real Estate Development.

He is also a fellow at the Urban Land Institute and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, where I met him at a conference early this summer shortly before he assumed his job at UB. Learning he was coming to Baltimore, I offered to give him a journalist's-eye view of the city. Late last month, he took me up on the offer.

Baltimore's the kind of city where you could easily spend a little more than two hours boosterishly showing off new developments and improving neighborhoods -- or the same amount of time in blighted, seemingly hopeless areas.

Trying to find a balance is more delicate; given the amount of time, a lot was going to be left out.

I picked up Wiewel at his office in Midtown and took him to the decayed neighborhoods north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex, where a huge, city-sponsored redevelopment is centered around a planned biotech park.

We drove through Butchers Hill and Patterson Park, where improvements are being spurred by private owners and an active community development corporation, to a new development of waterfront houses in Canton.

From there, we swung by Pleasant View Gardens, the city's first Hope VI public housing redevelopment, passed by the Hippodrome and Centerpoint, the heart of the west-side redevelopment, then took Edmondson Avenue through the blighted heart of Harlem Park.

We went up Fulton Avenue to North Avenue, and went along the dreary North Avenue corridor past Coppin State University; up Hilton Street through the stable African-American neighborhoods of Forest Park, Ashburton and East Arlington. We went through Park Heights past Pimlico Race Course, then zipped across Northern Parkway to York Road, going south past Belvedere Square and through Govans and Johnston Square, and back to his office.

Because I haven't yet mastered the art of taking notes while driving, I called Wiewel a couple of days later to get his impressions.

He said he was struck, not just on the tour but during his two months here, by what he called Baltimore's "historic legacy."

"This has been a city that has been rich and powerful over many of the decades of its existence," he said. "It is clearly not at its zenith, but it is not at the nadir, either. But that sense is palpable."

He also said he was "stunned" by the extent of abandoned housing. "That is a depressing thing to see," he said.

Chicago also had a large amount of abandoned housing until about 15 years ago, Wiewel said. For the record, the population of Chicago, the country's third-largest city, grew 4 percent in the 1990s, while Baltimore's dropped 11.5 percent; Chicago's housing vacancy rate of 7.9 percent in 2000 was a little more than half that of Baltimore's.

One thing that helped turn Chicago around was targeted city spending, even in such mundane matters as median strip landscaping, that spurred private investment. "Doing physical improvements makes a difference," Wiewel said.

Wiewel said Chicago's rebound was not the result of job creation. "Employment has remained pretty stable," he said. "What increased was the ability to attract middle-class professionals."

A downside of that growth has been the effect on poor people. "They can't afford housing anymore," he said. "They're doubling up, tripling up."

With its more modest housing prices and higher vacancy rate, Wiewel suggests Baltimore can minimize that consequence while increasing its middle class.

Though he lives in Montgomery County to accommodate his wife's job in Washington, Wiewel said: "Each of the suburbanites that works in the city is a potential city resident."

But to tap that market, you have to offer attractive housing, he said.

"I don't see enough creative development," he said. "Why can't someone take a whole block and create two units out of three?"

"It's not enough to have $900,000 townhouses on the waterfront," he added. "You need $300,000 houses."

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