New faces vying in city's new District 1

No council incumbents among three contenders

Development is area's key issue

Election 2004

October 04, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City Council's 1st District has traditionally been known as the "fighting First," thanks to old rivalries among Democratic clubs.

The council's realignment from six three-member districts to 14 single-member areas has rendered the old 1st District obsolete. But its namesake in the Nov. 2 general election has one major issue -- development -- that should maintain its pugnacious reputation for years to come.

The Southeast Baltimore district is home to some of Baltimore's hottest waterfront neighborhoods -- Fells Point, Canton and the Inner Harbor's east side. Development there is booming.

With no sitting council members in the race, the seat is one of the few that will be won by a newcomer. The three candidates vying for it are Democrat James B. Kraft, Republican Roberto L. Marsili and Green Party candidate Matt A. Clark.

"Because of the nature of that district [the new councilman] will be a very influential person," said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "There's going to be a lot of decisions to be made in that district that balance a lot of different interests between development and residents."

Political observers, neighborhood leaders and candidates agree that those decisions will revolve around encouraging development projects that are mindful of preserving already-limited open space and historic buildings and for providing traffic and parking relief.

"The 1st District is a phenomenon because of all the gentrification that's going on here," said Edwin F. Hale Sr., the banker and developer who lives in the district. He said he hoped the new councilman would see the benefit of attracting residential developments that improve the city's tax base.

Hale's Canton Crossing development is one of the most ambitious along the waterfront: a $100 million plan for 504 upscale condominiums and restaurants at Boston and Clinton streets.

But he is not alone in the building boom. Together, Fells Point, Canton and Canton Industrial Park have attracted building permits between January and June this year that are valued at more than $35 million in work -- that's more than any other part of the city other than downtown and Hopkins Bayview.

Development contrasts

"The 1st District has become the economic engine for Baltimore City," said Kraft, 55, an attorney. "We have to continue development because we need to grow the tax base."

Kraft said he supported Hale's development. He said as a councilman he would work with residents and developers to determine the best way to ease traffic congestion throughout Southeast Baltimore. He said he would encourage developers to form a partnership with the city to provide a public transit system of trolleys or buses that is more reliable than existing systems.

Clark, 35, is a woodworker who never graduated from high school and does not have a driver's license. Clark, who travels only by bike, also would push for more public transit.

Clark is attracting support from some 1st District residents who agree with his message that waterfront communities get more attention than neighborhoods set back from the shore.

"I would work against Canton Crossing," said Clark, who lives in Upper Fells Point. "Every new house is an old house that is not being rebuilt. The waterfront is better served as park space."

Clark said he refuses to take contributions from businesses or developers like Hale.

Council members, he said, "should work for the people. They should not be more indebted to one wealthy man than to the average voters."

He said Kraft is a product of Baltimore's Democratic machine who would be beholden to developers.

Kraft has been elected to the 46th District Democratic Central Committee four times in 25 years, twice in Howard County and twice in the city. He has received nearly all major endorsements -- including those of Mayor Martin O'Malley and the AFL-CIO -- that make him the favored candidate.

Kraft said campaign contributions, especially from developers, will have no influence over him. "It doesn't mean I owe them anything," Kraft said.

Questioning authority

Marsili, 73, said he knows Kraft is likely to win because of his party affiliation.

But, Marsili added: "[Kraft's] not going to question the administration."

And it's the administration and the incumbent City Council members who need to be questioned, Marsili said. He is running on a "Deliver Us From Evil" platform that promises to expose and reduce what he believes to be corruption and waste in city government.

Marsili said he supports developers, but that the council needs to address the concerns of the 1st District's elderly residents.

All three candidates agreed that the pace of development is hurting elderly residents by boosting property values that, in turn, raise property taxes after reassessments. Even though increases are limited to no more than 4 percent to prevent such major spikes in property taxes, elderly residents on fixed incomes have a difficult time affording even slight increases.

Marsili, a Korean War veteran who lives in Little Italy, said he would push for a moratorium on property taxes and impose a new sales tax. Kraft and Clark said they would push the council to develop ways to provide property tax relief for the elderly.

"Every year they're falling further and further behind," said Kraft, who lives in Canton. "We gotta find a way to address that."

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