City group writes urban success story

October 16, 2006|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,sun reporter

Ed Rutkowski, riding through the neighborhood he has spent years trying to save, repeatedly gestures at signs of success - rowhouses already rehabbed, being rehabbed, soon to be rehabbed. To his eyes, they add up to one conclusion: He and his nonprofit group are now largely irrelevant here. Time to move on.

Had anyone suggested a decade ago that the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. would one day run out of work in Patterson Park, they would have been laughed out of town.

The revival that Rutkowski's group helped create in a then-rapidly declining swath of Southeast Baltimore runs so counter to prevailing trends that even experienced revitalization leaders were taken aback. It had all the signs of relentless decline: white and middle-class flight, prostitutes, drug dealers, shady investors, derelict homes spreading like a virus.

Now, vacancies are dwindling; crime has dropped. Home prices have shot up at least fivefold. Restored brick facades are multiplying. It's not a problem-free neighborhood, but there's general agreement that it's far better than it was a decade ago.

A community development corporation shifting its focus away from the neighborhood it was formed to help is a remarkable step in Baltimore. It's also unusual nationally, said John K. McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. CDCs, as they're called, are often battling just to keep blight at bay - and lots are more well-intentioned than well-managed.

"Many CDCs are ineffective," McIlwain said. "Clearly, not this one."

The Patterson Park CDC, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary Wednesday, said its turning-point decision is fairly straight-forward: No more cheap houses are left.

"High prices for everything that is available says that there's really no need for us," said Rutkowski, 59, the organization's executive director. He was a software development manager for UPS when he moved to Patterson Park 20 years ago. "We always contended the important thing was to keep houses out of the hands of slumlords."

The 25-employee CDC won't vanish from Patterson Park. It owns vacant commercial buildings that need to be redeveloped. It will likely keep many of its 140 rentals. It plans to continue its significant support of local organizations, from the year-old charter school to the group that helped restore the huge park that gives the area its name. If the neighborhood starts to slip, Rutkowski said, the CDC will step in.

But as things stand, he said, it will run out of residential redevelopment projects next year. To keep working at a full-steam pace of 40 to 50 rehabs a year, the CDC needs to decide within a few months where to go next.

One option is to push northward into neighborhoods such as McElderry Park, which has 380 vacancies. The CDC has bought and sold a handful of homes there. It is also talking to other groups about possible collaboration. Vincent P. Quayle, executive director of St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, said he would love to have its help in acquiring and fixing up foreclosed city properties.

It's a tricky endeavor, trying to replicate Patterson Park's success elsewhere. The striking turnaround was at least partly dependent upon market forces, including an unprecedented housing boom - now muted - and a resurgence in urban living. And not every neighborhood is anchored by a 137-acre park.

"The challenge they face, and they know it, is to find a comparable situation," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, a longtime supporter that gave the CDC its first grant.

Some Patterson Park residents, meanwhile, say the area still needs its CDC's full attention.

"I don't think that job is done," said Marc E. Warren, 45, a recent resident who is upset about trash-strewn alleys and blames CDC tenants. "It's like abandoning ship."

Charles Duff, chairman of the CDC for its first five years, is the first to warn that a rebounding neighborhood requires vigilance because it can quickly reverse course. But Duff also thinks other parts of the city could sorely use the Patterson Park CDC's help.

"Baltimore cannot afford to waste the human capital that Ed has assembled," said Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, another community developer.

During its 10-year buying spree, the Patterson Park CDC acquired 475 properties, almost all of them homes - or, Rutkowski estimates, about one out of every six in the area bounded roughly by Fayette Street and Eastern, Patterson Park and Highland avenues, where it has focused. Of those, it has sold 230, most to homeowners, some to developers. It keeps its rentals affordable at about $800 a month. The neighborhood has remained diverse.

Vacancies in the neighborhood, which the city tracks as "Baltimore-Linwood," rose during the mortgage fraud epidemic of the later 1990s but have fallen sharply since. The city now records less than 5 percent of all buildings as vacant.

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