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How big? Baltimore wrestles with vision for growth

A Maryland Transit Administration bus heads east on Pratt Street on a designated bus lane. Transportation activists released a report Thursday arguing plans to overhaul the Baltimore metro area's bus routes are inadequate. (Adam Bednar/The Daily Record)

The ideal population for Baltimore? That depends on the community, business and government leaders’ vision for the future, experts say. (File photo)

As Baltimore seeks sustained population growth following decades of loss and disinvestment, city leaders continue searching to find the right size for the modern city.

City leaders, after U.S. Census data shows the city’s population loss has leveled off, hope to shift the narrative away from the managed decline of a once-thriving industrial center. Now they hope to present Baltimore as a growing city attracting young resident with a growing economy based on technology, health care, higher education and tourism.

(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

(The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Mayor Catherine Pugh, in a recent interview, said she’s unsure of the ideal number of residents that fit in modern Baltimore, but said there’s obviously room for growth.

“Well, I’m not quite sure what size it should be. When I think of us being a city of 640,000, I mean we know we we’re built for a million, we also know that we’ve lost a certain amount of housing in the city because we’ve torn it down. The question becomes, ‘What do we do with the spaces?’” Pugh said. “Those are the kinds of things that we’re grappling with. I mean, is there room in our city for another 100,000 people? Obviously, yes.”

The U.S. Census estimates Baltimore’s population in 2015, the last available figures, at 621,849 residents. According to historical data the city’s population peaked at 949,708 in 1950.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

During the next two decades Baltimore started losing population. The number of people living in Charm City fell by 43,949 residents between 1950 and 1970.

But the population decline accelerated during the next decade as deindustrialization stripped the city of manufacturing jobs that were once its backbone and white flight picked up pace following the 1968 riots.

Between 1970 and 1980 Baltimore lost nearly 119,000 residents. By 1980 the population dwindled to 735,632 people.

The trend of stark population loss continued through the 1990s — spurred by crippling violent crime — as the city’s population declined to 648,654 residents by 2000. During the next decade the city lost another 27,444 residents, hitting 621,104 people by 2010, the lowest city population since 1910.

But in the ensuing five years the city experienced a slight population increase of roughly 700 residents. The fact the city stopped hemorrhaging residents created a sense of optimism that Baltimore could rebound.

Former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, in late 2011, set a goal for growth of 10,000 households in 10 years.

That figure was based largely on a Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance-Jacob France Institute development holding capacity estimate that in 2006 calculated the city could comfortably hold roughly 700,000 residents.

The estimate was established by taking every developable vacant or underutilized property in the city, using its current zoning and the average household size to create an estimated housing capacity.

“Calculate all that up you get a holding capacity of what a city might be. That doesn’t mean that it’s likely,” Seema Iyer, associate director of the Jacob France Institute said.

Optimism among business leaders, developers and elected officials that Baltimore is positioned to grow persists despite setbacks, such as the riots in April 2015. Much of the continued optimism is based on the millennial generation’s supposed preference for urban living.

By some measure that has panned out as the number of new younger residents, who now make up the nation’s largest generation, have offset losses in other demographics. But making sure those residents stay in the city and don’t flee to the suburbs as they get older and raise families remains a challenge.

“(Millennials) love it here. I think you can go to almost any of the entertainment areas in the city in the evening and you’ll see they like the entertainment venues and so forth that exist in our city. But we’ve got to capitalize on what we’re doing for the 55-year-of-age and older, and what are we going to do to attract that 35-to-54-year-old?” Pugh said. “And I say again, I think part of that goes to the schools and the other is entertainment in other neighborhoods and communities.”

But some experts believe that Baltimore needs systematic political changes before the city can become an attractive enough place to draw new residents on a large scale.

Michael Runnels, a professor at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business who studies urban development, argued the “neoliberal” leanings of the city’s governing has left it ill equipped to attract the population leaders want.

“Absolutely, we have everything an American city needs. The failure here is a lack of vision and a governing ethos that views the city as a corporation as opposed to a city that is designed to serve the human interests,” Runnels said.

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