Gap gives city its chance

Forces now favor growth, but major challenges persist

Sun Special Report


Developer Patrick Turner has big plans for nearly 40 acres in Baltimore's struggling Westport neighborhood. Big as in more than 5 million square feet of waterfront offices, retail, entertainment and urban living. Big as in 1,800 homes, twice what Westport has now.

KSI Services Inc. has big plans in the city, too: just over 1,000 homes on 14 acres in Greektown. And in midtown, the state has hired a development team to transform its office complex into a new neighborhood so big the numbers won't be worked out for at least a year - though a "vision plan" by the state shows the possibility of 1,200 mixed-income homes, a 200-room hotel, and many offices and shops.

Such scale shows the extent to which some developers believe they can draw more young professionals, affluent empty nesters and Washington commuters into Baltimore after years in which all the movement seemed to be out. But with a powerful whirlwind bearing down on the metro area, the potential could be bigger than even they hope.

A Sun analysis found that, with current suburban building restrictions in place, the Baltimore region will have 20,000 fewer homes in four years than it needs to keep up with projected job growth. It would be 100,000 homes short by 2030. With its vast number of vacant homes and empty lots, Baltimore is a natural relief valve with the space to absorb a substantial amount of the growth.

This could be the city's best chance yet for a comeback - if it can capitalize on it.

"The opportunity is here now," said Sandy Marenberg, whose Marenberg Enterprises Inc. has been building in the city for 30 years. "I think Baltimore City is on the verge."

Sandy Hillman, who as an official in Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration was active in early efforts to revive the city, was stunned by the inherent potential of such a large housing shortage. It suggests to her that Baltimore "will prosper in a way that we've sort of been chasing for decades," she said.

There's no guarantee. Baltimore still has to overcome major challenges that helped to drive residents away. One of the most violent cities in the nation, it has a chronically underperforming school system, rampant drug addiction and the highest property tax rate in the state. It must make headway on a variety of fronts if it hopes to attract large numbers of residents and keep them, experts say.

A housing shortage that limits options in Baltimore's five suburban counties isn't by itself enough to entice local workers into the city, because they can push outward - to Pennsylvania, the Eastern Shore or Delaware. And they're already doing so.

Won't be overnight

"The city needs, in theory, to improve a little bit everywhere ... and that's not going to happen overnight," said Jake Ruppert, a Baltimore resident who heads the city chapter of the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

Baltimore has been a city of sharp contrast. Neighborhoods such as Federal Hill, Canton and Hampden have undergone a remarkable rebirth, with new residents and soaring property values, and the impact has been spilling over into adjacent areas. But other parts of the city remain bleak, pockmarked with houses that no one wants and persistent hopelessness.

The large-scale projects in the works could jump-start change in new places - if the developers pull them off.

"Size is important when you're trying to redevelop an area because you're trying to create a critical mass," said John K. McIlwain, senior fellow for housing with the Urban Land Institute. He spent four years running a fund that invested in developing urban neighborhoods.

Infusing - or creating - a neighborhood with hundreds of working people can change the dynamics quickly. It fosters a sense of safety in numbers, not the dangerous frontier of the urban pioneer. It means more residents with the resources to keep up appearances, greater buying power of the sort that can attract coveted retailers and services, plus increased property and income taxes for the city. And if middle-class families move in and use the local public schools, that too can have an effect and broaden support for educational improvement.

"Getting the buy-in of economically diverse families ... turns out to be so important," said Jeff Nugent, president of the Development Training Institute, an Ellicott City nonprofit that works nationally to improve neighborhood redevelopment efforts.

`Keep the momentum'

The key is good design and an understanding of how much is too much, McIlwain said.

"You want to keep the momentum without getting too far ahead of the market," he said. "I think that's an issue that a number of markets are beginning to face."

Baltimore among them. So many novice investors have flooded into the city in the past few years with dreams of rehabbing old rowhouses that too many properties are for sale now, Marenberg said. The market has slowed significantly, as it has in the suburbs.

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