GBC urges improved Amtrak gateway on east side

Business group decries view of boarded-up houses

May 19, 2010|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

For many decades, visitors arriving in Baltimore by train from the north have received a rude greeting: a panorama of urban decrepitude with block after block of boarded-up homes lining the Amtrak tracks on the city's east side.

The Greater Baltimore Committee wants to change that.

The business advocacy group is calling on the city and Amtrak to work together to create a more attractive gateway to improve Baltimore's image and the quality of life in the neighborhoods along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor.

GBC Chairman Charles O. Monk II, managing partner of Saul Ewing's Baltimore law office, told the committee's annual meeting Tuesday night that the railroad corridor is an unsolved problem in the transformation of Baltimore's east side.

"It serves to disguise to outsiders that the east side and Baltimore are on the rise," he said. "Rail travelers see only the mostly vacant and boarded homes — many of them owned by the city — that are right next to the track."

The condition of the corridor has been the subject of discussion among business leaders, many of whom, like Monk, travel by train in the Northeast Corridor.

"I don't think there was a person in the room who hadn't experienced it and expressed some concern," he said.

Monk said the GBC has raised the issue of the Amtrak corridor with Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and believes that she will be an ally in the effort.

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, said he wasn't familiar with the GBC initiative but added that "it sounds interesting."

O'Doherty cautioned that any such effort would require Amtrak's cooperation.

"It's difficult to reach an agreement, but that's not to say it can't be done," he said.

Money is also an obstacle, O'Doherty said. "The city is certainly challenged now with the worst budget deficit in its modern history," he said.

The east side is the site of a large-scale redevelopment project led by East Baltimore Development Inc., but Monk contended the current view from trains does not reflect the progress being made there.

Monk said that the GBC's proposal is in its early stages and that he has no specific idea how to finance a sprucing-up of the track-side neighborhoods. He suggested that a committee be formed to explore options, including federal funding and public-private partnerships.

"We know that the city owns a lot of the property in those areas, and we'd like to help work with the city and bring some of those blocks to the point of redevelopment opportunities," Monk said.

He said the GBC has not yet approached the railroad about its proposal.

"We're certainly overdue for an overall discussion about Amtrak now," he said.

An Amtrak spokesman said he was not aware of any current discussions about the gateway.

Monk said the problem is not just one of Baltimore's image. He said noise and dirt from the railroad detracts from the quality of life and safety in neighborhoods near the line.

"One of the things we do around the Beltway is put up noise barriers and security barriers," he said. "It's not just about hiding the bad but about [highlighting] the good," he said.

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