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Baltimore millenials
(The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Suburbia’s new urbanism challenges Baltimore’s future

Officials in older cities like Baltimore have been encouraged by predictions that millennials are seeking more urban lifestyles and may return to the communities their grandparents fled, but the rise of a new urbanism in the suburbs could increase the competition for these residents.

A Nielsen study released in March reported that 62 percent of millennials, who make up nearly a quarter of the country’s population, prefer to live in mixed-use communities, and 40 percent want to live in urban areas in the future. But with suburban areas throughout Maryland embracing more urban designs to appeal to this demographic, Baltimore’s growth may not be assured.

“We certainly recognize that other places around the region are going to try and capture the same types of demographics we are. But we really think we have a number of advantages along the the lines of being an authentic place that’s already built up to be walkable, served by great transit, has tremendous arts and culture and entertainment assets,” said Thomas J. Stosur, director of the Baltimore Department of Planning.

Stosur argued suburban jurisdictions may try to develop like cities by including mixed-use projects, but that there’s a different character in Baltimore, whether it’s downtown or the various main street communities. He also said the city is more affordable than many of the surrounding suburban areas.

“I think, for a host of reasons, we’re in a good position to compete and we really do have more options for people than a lot of those other jurisdictions,” Stosur said.

Kimberly A. Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said the city already has amenities like the Inner Harbor that newer suburban developments covet but can’t replicate. She also touted the diversity of housing that can be found in the city.

“We offer such a mix here in the city that … those folks that want to live in an urban environment are not limited to high-rise condos,” Clark said.

But despite the optimism among city officials, Baltimore has not yet experienced the population growth that many are anticipating.

Nearly three years ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced a goal to attract 10,000 families in a decade to a city that has lost about a third of its population during the last 40 years. But since announcing the goal, the city has only experienced a modest uptick in population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of residents living in Baltimore increased by 1,143 people between 2010 and 2013.

But Stosur argued the city is on track to reaching the mayor’s goal. He said the city’s net gain of about 1,000 residents is a sign of what is to come for the city. According to city data, there have been 8,400 new residential units completed in Baltimore since 2010. There are 3,200 more units under construction.

“It’s not huge. But if you put it in the perspective of what the overall trend has been, it’s a major milestone to say that we’ve  essentially now stabilized [the population] and we’re also looking at the tremendous amount of construction of new units going on in the city,” Stosur said.

Experts on urban design and planning said it’s hard to predict if the new urban style of developments in suburban areas will hinder Baltimore’s plans for growth.

Michael Runnels, an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger Business School, said it’s possible that newer-style urban developments could hurt the city’s plans to attract more residents if the city isn’t more deliberate in considering the impact of new projects.

“If that’s the case, the lack of communication between city planners and current residents, all due to city planners wanting to get out ahead of a trend that they haven’t really put a lot of thought in, in terms of  how it effects culture, then yeah, you could have a backlash,” Runnels said.

Matthew Bell, an architecture professor at University of Maryland and principal at Washington-based Perkins Eastman Architects, said although it’s clear millennials have a preference for urban-style living, it’s extremely hard to predict what impact the competition will have on older cities’ plans for growth.

“That’s a little bit of  a harder call to make. I think they’re certainly trying to compete for some of the same market segments. So when a developer is doing a project like the Wharf in Washington or Rockville Town Center, they’re trying to provide the amenities that they would find in traditional downtowns,” Bell said.

Despite the challenges facing Baltimore’s plans for growth, city officials remained confident that Baltimore will continue to grow.

Clark emphasized that she felt the city is in the right place for growth and that officials aren’t concerned about competing with suburbs offering urban-style development.

“We’re not scared of them,” Clark said.