State taps city, town projects for help

W. Balto., St. Mary's sites named `Priority Places'

But effort excluded from budget

February 01, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

An ambitious effort to revitalize a blighted West Baltimore neighborhood and a Southern Maryland town's plan to revive its rundown waterfront have been tapped to receive state help as the first "Priority Places," the Ehrlich administration's take on the anti-sprawl policies of its predecessor.

But the lack of funding available for the designated projects makes it unclear just how much impact Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s signature community development program will have.

Ehrlich was scheduled to announce this morning his selection of the city's Poppleton redevelopment and Leonardtown's wharf project as the state's first two Priority Places.

"This is `smart growth' - making our communities attractive so people want to live there," said state Planning Secretary Audrey E. Scott.

Scott said each community would get the coordinated help of all state agencies in planning its project and in cutting through regulatory red tape.

But because of the state's budget crunch, she said, the administration cannot offer either project the money it needs - up to $10 million to prepare for redeveloping Poppleton and nearly $1 million to build a public marina in Leonardtown. The planning secretary vowed that each project would be first in line whenever state funds do materialize.

"Priority Places get priority consideration," she said.

Officials in Baltimore and Leonardtown welcomed news of their projects' designation, but a smart-growth advocate questioned how much help the state could be in rebuilding older communities if the program lacks funding.

"What are they going to get - a certificate? A plaque?" asked Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland. "Money still talks."

The city is reviewing proposals from five developers to overhaul a horseshoe-shaped tract of aging and mostly vacant houses in Poppleton, one of Baltimore's oldest neighborhoods, just west of the downtown business district, said Douglass Austin, the city's deputy commissioner of development.

The project abuts the University of Maryland's $300 million biotech center, under construction on West Baltimore Street, and an $81 million housing and commercial development that mixes apartments for the poor and the elderly with owner-occupied homes.

The city owns 357 of the properties in the 13.8-acre Poppleton tract but needs to acquire another 169 lots. City officials hope to replace those 500-plus rowhouses with a less-dense mix of about 300 modern townhouses, condominiums or apartments, and detached homes.

The city asked for state help designing streets and parks in the area, but Austin said the greatest need was $8.5 million to $10 million to finish buying up the properties, relocating people now living in some of the homes and demolishing the structures.

"We can't do any of this if we don't acquire the property and prepare the site for development," Austin said. State officials had been "vague," he said, about what financial help they could offer. But without it, the Priority Places designation wouldn't mean much to the city, the deputy commissioner said.

"We will find a way to get it done even without state money," Austin added, "but it will be much more difficult."

Officials in Leonardtown, the St. Mary's County seat, are seeking final state and federal approvals for an $18.8 million face-lift of the town's long-neglected commercial wharf, which they hope will spark a community renaissance.

Once a steamboat landing, the wharf has been vacant since the late 1980s and has fallen into disrepair. And the town has been struggling to retain and attract businesses in the aftermath of construction of a bypass and sprawling development outside of town.

Leonardtown now plans to put a public park and marina on the 5.5-acre site, and has struck a deal with a developer to build 26 luxury townhouses, a waterfront restaurant and a mixture of shops, offices and loft apartments.

"Like most towns, once the waterfront development is in place, it just is a huge magnet for other businesses," said Laschelle Miller, the town administrator. She said in the past year, with the wharf project taking shape, proposals for other stores have begun coming in.

The town still needs final approval from the state Critical Area Commission for the construction it plans along the shoreline of Breton Bay, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. The town also is seeking permits from the Maryland Department of the Environment for bulkheading and wetlands work, and from the Army Corps of Engineers for piers and boat slips. Miller said she hopes ground can be broken this summer on the park if all the regulatory hurdles are cleared.

Although Leonardtown has received some state funding and has a pledge from St. Mary's County as well, another $900,000 is needed to finance the public marina. If Priority Places designation does not bring any money with it, Miller said, she remained hopeful it could be secured somewhere.

"It certainly doesn't hurt to have the publicity," the town administrator said.

Because of the lack of funding in the Priority Places plan, Schmidt-Perkins, the smart- growth advocate, ranked the anti-sprawl efforts of Ehrlich's predecessor, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, as more far-reaching and effective.

"We didn't have a lot of money in the Glendening administration either for giving to projects, but we had more capacity for smart growth," she said, with a broad effort across agency lines to help revitalize neighborhoods while also preserving open space from development.

The two Priority Places projects were culled from 22 applications submitted last year by local officials, developers and community groups after the Ehrlich administration unveiled its signature Priority Places program.

Scott said the state plans to select three more groups of projects as Priority Places this year, but will invite just two rounds of applications per year after that.

Another 14 projects are under review.

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