Neighborhood sees $1.3 billion lifeline

Transit link viewed as revival key in West Baltimore

June 27, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN REPORTER

Mayor Sheila Dixon walked down a block in West Baltimore yesterday and noticed what wasn't there: doctors' offices, cleaners, grocery stores. Instead, she saw abandoned houses with collapsed roofs, vacant lots overrun with trash and weeds, and residents desperate for something better.

In a part of town that still has not recovered from the riots of 1968 or the infamous "Highway to Nowhere" that split a community and forced thousands to move away, hope for a renewal is being stirred by plans for the $1.3 billion Red Line east-west transit project. A station in West Baltimore near the current MARC stop would mean more retail, more housing and more homeowners, say residents and officials.

"We want to take control of our community and present people with opportunities so they don't have to go 20 miles out of their way to get to a decent grocery store," said Zelda Robinson of the West Baltimore Coalition. "This could be a real gem for the city."

Robinson and other community leaders took Dixon on a walking tour of West Baltimore yesterday, pointing out the opportunities for change amid the blighted landscape. Asked if the Red Line could have the same detrimental impact on Edmondson Avenue that light rail had on Howard Street downtown, Robinson laughed.

"We don't have anything along here for them to impact," she said. "It's already shut down."

The state and city have not determined the alignment they will propose for the Red Line, which would run from Woodlawn to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center near the city's eastern edge. They also have to decide whether the line would be light rail or "rapid buses" - buses that get their own lanes - and how much would be at street level or in tunnels.

But even with so many questions unanswered, and groundbreaking at least four years off if the line's even built, West Baltimore leaders see a rare opportunity. They say a transit station would connect them with jobs elsewhere in the city while also bringing jobs and opportunities to them. Just as transit-oriented development has spurred growth and investment in Owings Mills and elsewhere, West Baltimore could see the same effects.

"It sends the signal that we're open for business," said Douglas M. McCoach III, the city's planning director, who was on yesterday's tour. "We want people to come back and live in safe, healthy neighborhoods."

Although West Baltimore was once a solid middle-class community, many people left when a highway project, never finished, obliterated neighborhoods and divided the west side. The highway was supposed to connect downtown with Interstate 70 in Woodlawn. Community opposition eventually killed the plan, but not before a 1.5-mile stretch had been constructed.

"These communities were just totally wiped out," said Michael Johnson, executive director of the Greater Harvest Community Corp. "Our homeownership rate would increase if it was attractive to live in this neighborhood."

As it is, thousands of drivers pass through on their way out to the suburbs, and 700 people come to the neighborhood every day to get the MARC train to Washington. But they only park their cars and hop on the train. They don't contribute to the neighborhoods, residents said.

They think a transit station that would link existing MARC trains with a light rail or rapid bus line would spur development that would encourage some of those commuters to move to homes near the station. The housing stock is decent, officials said, and the rowhouses bigger than many on the east side.

"We want them to get off the train and live here," Dixon said. "This is a great area. But it hasn't been maintained in a number of years. Take Edmondson Avenue. It's been like that since the riots, and the riots were in the '60s."

But people who live on more residential streets, such as Cooks Lane, worry that major transit would harm their quiet community. Downtown, at least, the city is insisting the Red Line run underground so traffic is not disrupted, though building tunnels may be too expensive for federal funding.

On the east side, the Fell's Point Residents Association has urged planners to put the transit line underground to preserve the character of their historic neighborhood. The group has also suggested the line take a more northerly route along Eastern Avenue or Fleet Street and not Aliceanna Street, as some plans now have it.

"We favor public transportation that at the same time appropriately protects neighborhoods," said Arthur Perschetz, president of the residents association. "In Fells Point, we don't want the [community] fabric destroyed."

Back on the west side, where transit is so lacking that people without cars use "hack" vans to get around, residents yesterday were less concerned with preserving what they have than building a future.

"The Red Line can lead to the revitalization and improvement of quality of life in our neighborhood," said Joyce Smith, executive director for Operation ReachOut Southwest. "It shows that something is happening."

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