Downtown is on the upswing, study says

`Emerging' status puts it ahead of D.C.

November 15, 2005|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore is not a Chicago, a Philadelphia or a Boston -- certainly not a New York. But a study has found that the city built on Formstone and nurtured on Natty Boh might just be closing in on those great metropolises.

In the latest affirmation for Baltimore's urban resurgence, a report by the Washington-based Brookings Institution declares Charm City's downtown "emerging," or teeter-tottering on the brink of becoming a full-fledged urban powerhouse.

The report, "Who Lives Downtown," which is being released today, analyzes downtowns in 45 U.S. cities, marking population growth and household ownership trends from 1970 to 2000.

It finds that center-city living is catching on from coast to coast -- and in Baltimore more so than in many other cities, its monument-heavy neighbor to the southwest included.

"Basically it's going in the right direction," the study's author, Eugenie L. Birch, chairman of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of City and Regional Planning, said of Baltimore's downtown. "It's on the way."

Baltimore shares its "emerging downtown" status -- one notch below the top ranking of "fully developed" city -- with 13 other urban areas, including Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Norfolk, Va. Washington is one step further down, sharing its "downtown on the edge of takeoff" designation with such cities as Milwaukee and Dallas.

In the 30 years the report examined, the targeted downtowns gained about 35,000 housing units in total. But during the same time, their outlying suburbs gained 13 million.

"Still," the report states, "however small its relative growth, downtown housing provides visible and tangible evidence of urban vitality that has important psychological and economic impacts."

Baltimore is quite familiar with the injection of pride that comes with turning around once-empty downtown streets and forlorn waterfront land.

Though the city still wrestles with a daunting reputation for violent crime, what with the nice words from Brookings, a recent study uncovering the city's ripeness for retail and being called a top world destination by Frommer's, it might all start going to Baltimore's head.

"It's what we kind of already knew," said Mayor Martin O'Malley's spokesman Rick Abbruzzese. "The rest of the country is starting to catch on."

Abbruzzese and Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler say that if Baltimore fared well with the statistics Brookings had to work with, it's nothing compared to the growth the city's seen in the past five years.

"Since 2000 our numbers have been even more impressive," Fowler said, adding that in the last four years, nearly 40 percent of all new housing in the city has been downtown.

The urban allure, Birch said, is tied to fascinating architecture, waterfront property, cultural heritage and the idea of entertainment at your doorstep.

Yet without density -- more and more people sharing urban ZIP codes -- it's unlikely a city like Baltimore will make it into the leagues of a Boston or a Philadelphia, she warned.

Though some in Baltimore cringe at the idea of residential high-rises, with open space and view corridors, they work, she says, adding that low-density, single-family dwellings in the center city are nothing short of "silly."

"Downtown land is a scarce commodity," she says. "We can't afford to squander it on low-density settlements."

The study also found:

During the 1990s, downtown population in the studied cities grew by 10 percent, a marked resurgence after 20 years of overall decline.

From 1970 to 2000, the number of downtown households increased 8 percent, 13 percent in the 1990s alone.

Downtown homeownership rates more than doubled during the 30-year period.

For Tracy Gossen, executive director of Live Baltimore, proselytizing about urban living is her stock and trade. In the nearly 10 years she's run the organization, which strives to persuade people to move to the city, her job has gotten easier and easier.

She says the only people who would be shocked to hear of Baltimore's comeback are people who wouldn't know Harborplace from Home Depot.

"It is a shock to those Baltimoreans -- and there are many -- who say, `Oh, God, I haven't been back in the city in 10 years,'" she said. "And we're like, `Are you crazy?'

"In 1997, when we started, we'd stand at Artscape for 20 minutes, just trying to convince someone that Baltimore wasn't completely falling apart.

"It's a totally different ballgame now."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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