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Rebuilding Baltimore by tearing it down

City's strategy for reviving blighted neighborhoods starts with a massive demolition project

Mark Washington, Executive Director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corporation, seen here talking about the green space at the 2700 block of Tivoly Avenue, which was once lined with vacant row houses that were demolished in 2015. Photos taken on a visit to the neighborhood for a story on demolition of vacant homes. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Mark Washington, Executive Director of the Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corporation, seen here talking about the green space at the 2700 block of Tivoly Avenue, which was once lined with vacant row houses that were demolished in 2015. Photos taken on a visit to the neighborhood for a story on demolition of vacant homes. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Mark Washington, executive director of the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello Community Corp., isn’t naive. He knows his neighborhood, which shares an economic profile with some of Baltimore’s poorest communities, faces deep challenges as it struggles to thrive again.

He also believes the community, which has views of the downtown skyline, is located across Harford Road from Clifton Park and its golf course and has homes with views of Lake Montebello, can attract the investment it desperately needs.

Demolition of a home at on the 2700 block of Fenwick Avenue in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood, which is surrounded by amenities like a golf course, lake and good schools, but it has still been one of the most blighted neighborhoods in Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Demolition of a home at on the 2700 block of Fenwick Avenue in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood, which is surrounded by amenities like a golf course, lake and good schools, but it has still been one of the most blighted neighborhoods in Baltimore. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

That’s why about a year ago he and his neighbors celebrated the city demolishing 98 severely dilapidated homes in the 2700 block of Tivoly Avenue. They viewed the demolition as a step toward bringing the community back.

But what’s been left behind — trash strewn lots littered with debris from the razed houses and knee high weeds — serves as an example of the city’s limitations in addressing vacant properties.

“You can’t even send kids over here to play,” Washington said.

It’s properties like Tivoly Avenue that raise questions about whether Baltimore can rebuild struggling neighborhoods with heavy investment in the demolition and deconstruction of the vacant properties left over from when Baltimore’s population, at its peak in 1950, was approaching 1 million residents.

Demolition of a home at on the 2700 block of Fenwick Avenue in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood, (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Demolition of a home at on the 2700 block of Fenwick Avenue in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood, (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Since then, as the process of de-industrialization robbed the city of the working-class jobs that were the backbone of its economy,  that number eroded to its current level of about 620,000 people who still call the city home. As a result of the loss of jobs, and residents with the financial ability fleeing to the suburbs, Baltimore was left with an abundance of homes and not enough people to live in them.

“The problem of vacant housing, or the vacant housing problem, is really many overlapping problems. It’s the problem of neighborhood blight itself, just the problem of having an oversupply of vacant abandoned properties … when you have a critical mass of those it leads to further decline in property value and increasing in crime, so that’s sort of the most obvious problem,” Casey Dawkins, an associate professor of Urban Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park said. “Behind that lies other kind of bigger [economic] problems.”

Baltimore is hardly the only city engaged in a massive demolition program. Detroit, for instance has undertaken the destruction of huge swaths of property – in some cases almost entire neighborhoods — after residents abandoned the once-thriving auto manufacturing hub.

Project C.O.R.E.

Baltimore, through Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Vacants to Value program, has made strides in eradicating vacant properties. Since that program’s inception in 2010 the city has demolished more than 1,700 structures.

Recommended demolitions in Project C.O.R.E.

Recommended demolitions in Project C.O.R.E.

It costs $13,000 to demolish a typical two-story home and $22,000 to raze a standard three-story home.

A report by the Abell Foundation, released late last year, called Vacants to Value the city’s most enterprising anti-blight program in 40 years, but it also found issues with the program’s transparency and how it accounts for results.

Following the April 2015 riots spurred by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old West Baltimore man who died from injuries suffered in police custody, addressing the economic inequalities plaguing Baltimore gained new political urgency.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Rawlings-Blake announced a boost to the city’s ongoing efforts to rid itself of nearly 17,000 “vacant and uninhabitable structures.”

The new plan, dubbed Project C.O.R.E. – Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise — adds increased financial backing to Baltimore’s attempts to eliminate vacant homes. The state provides $94 million — Baltimore’s chipping in $18.5 million — over four years to help tackle the problem.

There are more than 460 properties targeted for removal as part of the first phase of Project C.O.R.E. Work on tearing those homes down is scheduled to start later this year.

Key to the project’s potential, its architects say, is what comes after the properties are knocked down – nearly $600 million in financing from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to encourage developers to invest in these neighborhoods.

Ellington Churchill Jr., deputy secretary of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. (Submitted photo)

Ellington Churchill Jr., deputy secretary of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. (Submitted photo)

“If we can address those communities that are hardest hit, and the ones that are adjacent on the cusp, we’ll stem the tide of vacant properties and basically create a firewall in terms of this blight, and that will signal to the industry, to the development industry… that in the future market values will go up, and is the place to invest their dollars to create business opportunities and other housing opportunities,” said Ellington Churchill Jr., deputy secretary of Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Although experts and urban planners believe this model is what’s best for the city the outcome is uncertain. No one can say whether removing the vast supply of vacant dilapidated structures in Baltimore will generate renewed interest from developers, or whether there will just be more empty lots.

The Green space at the 2700 block of Tivoly Avenue in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

The Green space at the 2700 block of Tivoly Avenue in the Coldstream Homestead Montebello neighborhood. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)                

No easy solution

In a 2012 report for the Brookings Institution, “Laying the Groundwork for Change: Demolition, urban strategy, and policy reform,” city planner Alan Mallach, argues that its more cost-effective for cities to tear down the properties; mothballing homes won’t work because those neighborhoods aren’t attracting sufficient private market investment.

The report also warned that cities shouldn’t prioritize demolition in their most economically disadvantaged communities, that cities have to be aware that demolition alone won’t make properties magnets for redevelopment.

“While some lots created through demolitions will be used for construction of new housing or non-residential facilities, the logic of limited market demand, particularly in distressed older cities, dictates that many will remain empty,” according to the report.

Uwe S. Brandes, executive director of the master’s program in urban and regional planning at Georgetown University, argues that even though the outcome of these programs isn’t certain the effort to get rid of these homes is worth it.

“If this was easy, and if the marketplace felt like these areas were so desirable to redevelop that they would just come in without the public sector then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But the city of Baltimore, and the state of Maryland, are really doing something very important here, and it’s not easy work. It’s very complicated socially, economically, obviously environmentally, in terms of urban planning,” Brandes said. “But the alternative is to have these properties remain vacant and serve as destabilizing forces in the broader context of the city.”

To go, or to stay put?

Following a recent demolition and stabilization meeting at Edmondson-Westside High School residents expressed optimism about the city’s efforts.

“(Houses) need to be demolished, no doubt. But they need a new idea after demolition,” Ronald Brown, a Sandtown-Winchester reisent, said.

Inez Robb, also a Sandtown-Winchester resident, said she backs the idea of demolishing properties, and wants to see them replaced with mixed-use development for people of various income levels.

“I think it’s a great idea and time for it,” Robb said.

Not everyone was completely sold on the idea.

Anthony Francis, of Harlem Park, said he has concerns that any development that follows the demolition could lead to gentrification.

“We would like to see the residents, as many as possible, stay put,” Francis said.

Back in Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, which is still dealing with the impact of demolition, residents said they were out of hope and just wanted to get out of their neighborhood.

Debbie Epps and Etta Foster sat on the porches of their homes. Both long-time residents said they remembered when the 2700 block of Fenwick Avenue was clean and safe. Now they are sick of the crime and rats, and they long to be somewhere quiet.

“I’m just hoping and praying to God to get out of here,” Foster said.

Washington, however, isn’t quite ready to bolt. He’s unsure about whether the city’s demolition will help revitalize communities like his, but if it’s going to happen he hopes it happens quickly.

“How long that future will take to arrive that’s to be seen,” he said, “but the future can’t get here soon enough.”