For O'Malley, a legacy in improvement

Urban Chronicle

Neighborhoods: The mayor's strength may be in rebuilding.

September 16, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

MARTIN O'Malley's most fervent pledge, in his first campaign for Baltimore mayor, was to reduce violent crime in the city - a promise that so far has been only partially fulfilled. The bulk of the national attention he has received during his nearly five years in office has come from CitiStat, his computerized monitoring of the performance of city agencies, and from his assertion that the federal government is shortchanging localities when it comes to paying for homeland security.

But as O'Malley nears the end of his first term, and nears the end of his run for a second, one of his most impressive legacies might be in strengthening and rebuilding neighborhoods.

The latest example of his effort came with the recent unveiling of the master plan for the soon-to-demolished vacant Uplands Apartments complex in Southwest Baltimore - and of a proposal to relocate a nearby church to create a total of 1,100 units of new moderate- to high-priced houses.

Besides creating what officials describe as the city's largest new housing development in decades, the plan offers to stabilize the nearby middle- and upper-income communities by constructing parks and houses on the site of the 1940s housing complex that had been converted to low-income apartments in the early 1970s and deteriorated badly in the 1990s.

"We feel we have been neglected for so long with past elected officials," Angela Bethea-Spearman, president of the Uplands Community Association, told O'Malley in a ceremony at the complex. "We thank you for your efforts in recognizing that we exist."

It's undeniably easy to be upbeat when someone announces $300 million worth of compatible development in your area. But O'Malley's positive influence on neighborhoods arguably outstrips that of both of his long-serving elected predecessors.

William Donald Schaefer, mayor from 1971 to 1987, started the $1 homesteading program that spurred the development of Ridgely's Delight and Otterbein downtown, and created Coldspring out of a rock quarry. His obsession with patching potholes and other gritty details of urban life made him a kind of human precursor of CitiStat. But his focus was clearly on the Inner Harbor, and the mixed fate of the city under his watch was summed up by the memorable phrase in a report from the Goldseker Foundation: "the rot beneath the glitter."

Kurt L. Schmoke, who served from 1987 to 1999, deserves credit for the major rebuilding in Sandtown-Winchester and for beginning the HOPE VI redevelopment of the public housing high-rises. But the bottom line on his mayoralty will always be that Baltimore lost more population in the 1990s than any city in the country.

(The late Clarence H. Du Burns, whose 10-month tenure as mayor began when Schaefer was inaugurated governor and ended with his defeat by Schmoke, was hardly in office long enough to leave much of a mark.)

O'Malley has sought in a number of ways to eradicate the rot and stem the population decline.

In addition to tackling the Uplands Apartments, O'Malley has targeted for transformation some of the most decayed neighborhoods of the city with a large East Baltimore redevelopment centered on a biotech park. His administration's Project 5000 is the first comprehensive citywide effort to deal with blight; Baltimore Main Streets and the successful pursuit of supermarkets are shoring up often-overlooked neighborhoods and local business districts through commercial revitalization.

The roster of communities where good things are going on is diverse and growing. In Harbor East, a $180 million mixed-use development won approval last Thursday from the Planning Commission. A day later, in Waverly, the dedication of Stadium Place followed by six weeks the opening of a Giant supermarket across the street that replaced mostly derelict buildings.

The hopeful signs are at least in part the result of attention to crime and efficiency. Safer streets and more responsive basic services are as much the foundations of attractive communities as new buildings.

There's no question that there are vast dilapidated swaths of the city that remain untouched by plans or progress; some may sadly be beyond reclamation. Many of the plans that do exist, including those for Uplands and East Baltimore, are still a long way from reality. And no mayor in recent history has found a way of dealing with the deeply entrenched poverty, though creating housing for more affluent residents can certainly broaden the city's economic base.

But in a city that has long taken pride in its neighborhoods, for the first time in decades a lot more of them seem to be getting stronger.

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