Struggle on the east side

June 28, 2006

What confluence of forces must exist to make a blighted urban area viable again? The question is being raised about the neighborhood surrounding the old American Brewery, in a struggling section of East Baltimore, in recent articles by The Sun's Eric Siegel. The answer depends on how well the city and private interests can make financial and humane values work together to revitalize and stabilize a fallen community.

A thriving enterprise in the 1800s, the brewery shut down in 1973 and joined many other manufacturing concerns that collapsed or left the city. Despite repeated attempts to revitalize the area, it fell further and further into decay and has become home to families who either see its promise or have no place else to go. They struggle against the drugs and violence that mar so many city neighborhoods. Now a deal is in the works for Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse to develop the brewery as the headquarters for Humanim Inc., a nonprofit social service organization.

The city has been reluctant to invest a lot of money in the project, citing limited public resources. City officials have made a reasonable determination to hang back unless a project is designed for scale, builds on or connects to areas of strength, involves long-term growth and not a short-term fix, and incorporates economic and social diversity so that the area becomes vibrant and stable.

But that approach presents a chicken-and-egg problem as to whether city involvement or a viable development plan should come first. The city has yet to acquire any properties in the brewery area under Project 5000, a model effort to take title to abandoned and vacant properties and then sell them to developers, giving them a ready-made parcel or bundle to help realize larger-scale development plans. But it has 130 properties in the pipeline for the next fiscal year, when development may heat up. Mayor Martin O'Malley has been content to rely on the market to push development up from the waterfront, to the biotech park surrounding the Johns Hopkins Medical Center and then, possibly, to the brewery area. It's a long time to ask people to wait for neighborhood improvement.

While the city hopes that private development eventually progresses toward the brewery area, it should make some public investments in services to help people living there, including helping with more neighborhood cleanups to get rid of trash, fencing in vacant lots and strictly enforcing property codes against landlords. And the city should expand drug treatment services, job training and health services to neighborhood residents. Making people healthier and more economically self-sufficient is as important to community redevelopment as bricks and mortar.

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