City vows to sweat the details in its new master plan

Urban Chronicle

October 20, 2005|By ERIC SIEGEL

At the War Memorial Building downtown on Monday, Baltimore planning director Otis Rolley III stood in front of a large color-coded map of the city that identified conditions of the housing market in four major and three subcategories ranging from blighted to competitive.

Rolley was explaining how the different typologies, which included emerging and transitional areas, will serve as a guide for how the city spends approximately $400 million a year in precious construction money to foster growth and improve quality of life over the next several years.

"In a competitive area, the city shouldn't spend money on demolition of a vacant house. The market will take care of that house," he said. "In a blighted area, demolition should be fully supported."

Conversely, he said, it might not be wise to spend money repairing streets in areas of the city that are largely vacant. But it might make sense to repair a recreation center if there are still a lot of children in the area.

Rolley was holding court at the first of three scheduled open houses to informally discuss the development of the city's first comprehensive master plan in three decades.

The tentative schedule calls for a draft of the plan to be presented to the Planning Commission at a public hearing early next year, and to come before the City Council for consideration in the spring.

It is no coincidence that the city's master plan is being discussed just as public meetings are beginning on plans to reduce the number of school buildings. City planners have been working with school officials to bring school facilities in line with enrollment patterns, and education is one of four areas around which the plan is being organized, along with housing, economic development and entertainment and recreation. Officially, the plan goes by the moniker LIVE-EARN-PLAY-LEARN.

One of the more self-evident but nonetheless interesting facts to emerge from Monday's gathering was on a chart on a kiosk next to the city map. It pointed out that in the most blighted areas -- including Park Heights in Northwest Baltimore and sections east, west and southwest of downtown -- nearly all students attend public schools. In the most competitive areas -- principally along the waterfront and in the north and far northwest -- only a little more than 20 percent do.

Baltimore went through a similar planning process in the late 1990s, culminating in the 1999 release of "PlanBaltimore!" That document, released shortly before Martin O'Malley became mayor, was criticized by many for failing to offer specific recommendations; it fell by the wayside in the change of administrations.

Rolley promised that the new plan will make specific recommendations on changes in the use of land for residential, commercial and industrial purposes. He also said the new plan could add to the city's two priority growth areas that take precedence in requests for public funding -- Park Heights and the East Baltimore development area north of the Johns Hopkins medical complex. He suggested as possibilities communities along the proposed MTA Red Line through West Baltimore or the suddenly emerging Westport in South Baltimore.

The previous planning effort also divided the city's neighborhoods into four major categories, ranging from those in need of redevelopment (the most troubled) to those in need of preservation. Officials say the new categories, developed with the help of The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia nonprofit, are based on a wider range of indicators, including foreclosures and subsidized rental units as well as median sales prices and percentage of home ownership, and offer snapshots of the city more detailed than the neighborhood level. So, for example, parts of Brooklyn and Pen Lucy are classified as blighted while other parts of those neighborhoods are transitional.

"This gives us the ability to base decisions more on facts than on political whim or which community leaders are savvy," said Rolley.

Added Peter Auchincloss, chair of the city's Planning Commission: "What we want to do is develop a useful working document that transcends politics. If this doesn't make it to the next administration, we spent a lot of time on nothing."

Additional open houses will be held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Polytechnic Institute, 1400 W. Coldspring Lane; and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at City College, 3220 The Alameda.

Information and citizen questionnaires are available online at

Eviction overturned

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge has dismissed an attempt to evict a Southeast Baltimore homeowner from her house because of the failure of the previous owner of the property, The Patterson Park Development Corp., to pay $126 in ground rent -- a case that was the subject of a column in this space March 3. Judge W. Michael Pierson ruled that the owner of the ground rent, real estate investor Gary Waicker, did not comply with strengthened notification procedures.

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