If the proposed $2.6 billion Red Line light rail route is built, it has two ways to go.
It could be a catalyst in transforming West Baltimore from an economically distressed area with an abundance of vacant properties into a revitalized urban area. Or it could be just another poorly thought-out transportation project that fails to capitalize on its potential.
The proposed route of the Red Line follows along Edmondson Avenue and U.S. Route 40, which is home to some of the densest clusters of city-owned property in Baltimore. Although the properties may not seem like assets now, they could become attractive investments for developers looking to cash in on transit-oriented development.
“I view it as a benefit the city has, in its coffers, not only certain economic resources but the land itself,” said Michael Runnels, an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland Sellinger School of Business.
About 10 percent of the city-owned properties are concentrated in the Harlem Park, Franklin Square, Poppleton and Midtown-Edmondson neighborhoods that immediately surround the proposed Red Line in West Baltimore. Of the city-owned properties in those neighborhoods, about 30 percent are vacant homes.
Al Barry, owner of land use consultation firm AB Associates and a former Baltimore assistant planning director, said city ownership of properties presents a long-range opportunity to control planning and ultimately development close to planned Red Line stations.
“The city certainly would be wise not to do any premature disposition of those properties unless they understood how they would reinforce, and ultimately add value to these transit stations. It doesn’t mean they keep them vacant, either,” Barry said. “It may be that some of those neighborhoods should be reinforced as permanently middle-class residential neighborhoods, and to the extent there’s any interest of this independent of the Red Line the city ought to be looking at getting those properties back on the tax rolls.”
But Barry also said his instinct is that the Red Line itself won’t spur any significant new development in West Baltimore. He said the larger impact would come from a plan for development near the West Baltimore MARC station, and better planning on a regional level linking transportation lines.
“The city has not had a good track record of attracting development around any of the outer city stations, whether it’s light rail or the Metro,” Barry said.
The bigger issue
City officials undoubtedly are pleased at the prospect of the Red Line wiping out scores of abandoned homes and vacant buildings. That would make a dent in what is a mammoth inventory of city-owned properties.
According to data provided by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office in March, the city owns 11,445 residential and commercial properties citywide. Of those, 21 percent are vacant homes.
Baltimore is hardly alone in grappling with the problem of city-owned vacant properties. Philadelphia, for instance, has as many as 10,000 city-owned properties, according to the group Land Bank Now in Philadelphia.
Vacant properties can often be a drain on neighborhoods. They generally become eyesores and lead to increased crime and reduced property values. And they significantly retard economic development in the area.
Rawlings-Blake’s administration has developed programs designed to combat the spread of vacant homes. The Vacants to Values initiative is aimed at either demolishing city-owned properties and turning them into green space or finding developers to rehabilitate homes or lots.
But the initiatives have only targeted a relative handful of the thousands of vacant properties. Housing experts say that only large-scale private development can deal with the magnitude of the problem.
Supporters of the 14.1 mile Red Line, which would connect the east and west sides of the city, believe that it could help transform West Baltimore into one of the most attractive communities in the city for redevelopment. They point to several other promising factors — improvements to the West Baltimore MARC station, which connects the area to the burgeoning cyber security industry in West Anne Arundel County; and plans for the University of Maryland, Baltimore BioPark to expand with mixed-use development, which could also help spur growth in an area more prominently associated with blight.
But the construction of a transit line doesn’t always mean that development will follow. Projects such as the subway that links downtown with Owings Mills and the original light rail line that runs north and south through the city have failed to result in large-scale, transit-oriented development.
Dena Belzer, president of California-based urban economics consulting firm Strategic Economics, has worked with the Harlem Park community regarding planning for the Red Line. He said that for transit to be successful in spurring land development, the service quality needs to be high.
“Another big challenge that I think the Red Line is going to have on the West Side is accessing the stations, because the line will be down in the trench where [Route] 40 is, and light rail lines that have been in highway median or right-of-ways have been less impactful sometimes than other types of transit in engendering more transit-oriented development,” Belzer said.
Although Belzer said Baltimore can do things to offset the impact of the stops not being very well integrated into the community, she stressed that attracting transit-oriented development is more complicated than just building a line and expecting it to encourage development.
“I think from the market perspective there’s some pretty significant challenges here. One of which is that there are so many vacant properties here. The other is that there are a lot of abandoned buildings where ownership is unclear,” Belzer said.
John Duda, a spokesman for the Democracy Collaborative, a research institute that examines strategies for building community wealth, said it’s also important to remember that transit-oriented development isn’t a “magic bullet” that will make problems in surrounding communities disappear.
“It really does take some intentionality about what you’re doing, and what you’re trying to do and why. In many cases, development is going to follow the transit line no matter what you do,” Duda said. “With transit-oriented development, the idea is really to sort of make sure you’re capturing as much benefit as possible for the public and the communities that are affected.”
Any direct positive impacts from the Red Line are still years away. It was only in March that the project was recommended for federal New Starts funds. That money is necessary for the Maryland Department of Transportation to advertise construction contracts for the project, which is currently in the design and right-of-way acquisition phase. According to the Maryland Transit Administration’s timeline, the project at its current pace won’t be complete until 2022.
But despite the wait, some local leaders like Del. Shawn Tarrant, who represents portions of West Baltimore, are excited about what the project could mean to communities. The project could be “huge” in revitalizing the area by connecting to already thriving communities, he said.
“It could be [great] for the simple fact that you can be in the hot spots on the Red Line. For example, you can live in Poppleton or Harlem Park, however hop on the Red Line and it will put you in Canton and Fells Point,” Tarrant said. “That’s kind of cool.”