Getting denser

Our view: Baltimore is still losing population, but downtown is booming, placing it among the most crowded city centers in the nation

March 14, 2011

Baltimore may have lost another 30,000 people during the last decade, but in one key measure of urban vitality, we're holding strong.

Downtown Baltimore is the eighth-densest metropolitan core in the United States, with 41,289 residents living within a one-mile radius of Pratt and Light streets. This means that our downtown is denser than those in Denver, San Diego and that big, green park down I-95 known as the District of Columbia.

We still trail New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston in residents dwelling within the center city. But using the ranking system of the National Basketball Association (even though we don't have an NBA team), our eighth-place finish means we have made the downtown population playoffs; we are among the elite.

Looked at another way, downtown Baltimore's population density is even more impressive. Taking into account the entire metropolitan area — the city and all its suburbs — about 1.5 percent of the Baltimore region's population lives within a mile of the center of downtown. Only in San Francisco (2.8 percent) and Seattle (1.6 percent) do a larger share of the metropolitan area's residents live downtown. Philadelphia is the only other city east of the Rockies that even tops 1 percent.

The number of people who dwell in downtown Baltimore (an area roughly encircled by Fort Avenue on the south, Broadway on the east, Eager Street on the north and just short of Hollins Market on the west) has risen almost 12 percent in the last five years. These downtown denizens are earning an average of $37,625 per household, 10th highest among the nation's downtowns. The rankings and numbers come from Claritas, a national commercial real estate database, and from Baltimore's Downtown Partnership.

More people with more money translates into more amenities for the center city. Thirty-nine restaurants and eateries opened in the downtown zone in 2010, while 18 closed. Over the past few years, grocery stores such as the Whole Foods in Harbor East and the Superfresh on Charles and Saratoga streets set up operations.

Many of these new downtown dwellers are new to the city, if not the region. A portion work downtown — with 113,437 workers, Baltimore ranks 15th among American cities in downtown employment. Some of the newcomers are empty-nesters who help Baltimore's downtown rank eighth among American cities with households earning more than $75,000. There are also plenty of young professionals, drawn to an urban lifestyle, the ability to walk or ride transit to work, to bump into acquaintances on the sidewalk, to hang out in a neighborhood restaurant. Their lives are more "Seinfeld" than "Leave it to Beaver."

Living close together has its drawbacks. It is often hard to avoid your neighbors' noise and business. The much-heralded sense of community can be tested when heavy snows fall and parking spaces are scarce. But with new apartments and condos filling up, its appeal is obviously growing.

As a whole, the population of Baltimore has been shrinking, down about 4.6 percent from 2000, according to the 2010 Census — a disappointing figure, though still better than our Rust Belt peers such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Yet the city is like a garden — there are patches that are struggling and there are areas that are flourishing.

Downtown Baltimore is on a growth spurt, and that bodes well for our region's economic and cultural vitality. Downtown is not simply a destination for commuters, it is a place more people are calling home. This trend should continue, for while it is good to be dense, it is even better to be denser.


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