Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Public vs. Private Investment: One Hand Washes the Other

What comes first? The Chicken or the Egg? This has been a question asked for centuries by every great philosopher. Every one can have a valid argument for each side. One can't find an answer. Keep in mind I'm not a great philosopher and I don't want to try to debunk the theory myself.Now we come to Baltimore,which has its own version of the chicken/egg argument. Public and private investment which comes first? There are many instances in the gentrification of Baltimore where one or the other has come first. The question still remains for neighborhoods that have yet to be gentrified, which will come first for Baltimore in the future, public or private dollars?As always lets first examine the past. Charles Center began with a group of Civic Leaders on the private sector headed by none other than James Rouse who formed the Greater Baltimore Committee. They came up with the Charles Center plan and presented it to the City. The City then paid for the acquisition and demolition of the buildings at the sight. Then the land was sold to developers who built the buildings known as Charles Center.
Next came the Inner Harbor, this started at the public sector with the promenade lining the waterfront, The Convention Center, the National Aquarium, and the Maryland Science Center. The first brick for the waterfront was barely laid when the private investment began pouring in. Rouse built the Harbor Place and the Gallery mixed use projects. The old Power Plant building was transformed into retail and hotels were being built by the dozens. Meanwhile on the residential side public investment began in the way of homesteading and the famous $1 row home in hopes of attracting private investors. It worked like a charm, after all this is Charm City and neighborhoods like Otterberin Federal Hill and Fels Point were transformed from gritty industrial wastelands to upscale rehabbed homes shops, boutiques, restaurants, and bars. Plans for Inner Harbor East were beginning to surface but that will be discussed later.While the Inner Harbor began thriving ever since the opening of Harbor Place many neighborhoods to the north west were not. One that stood out most was Sandtown Winchester. In 1987 upon Kurt L. Schmoke's election Sandtown was on the top of his agenda. The Enterprise Foundation and B.U.I.L.D., a charities that took interest in this distressed neighborhood were able to funnel $60 million in public and private dollars. They took a Comprehensive look at every thing in the neighborhood housing, education, employment, retail, crime, and health of the residents. Not surprisingly the whole neighborhood suffered from deep rooted problems in all departments. Some 21 years later the neighborhood has seen its share and successes and hardships which I will discuss in a post dedicated to it.
Then came the westside of Downtown. It didn't get the same renewal and attention that the Harbor and Central Business District did. It came at first in the form of Stadiums. First it was Oriole Park at Camden Yards then it was M&T Bank Stadium. Both were public/ private ventures where the government paid to have the sites and offered enormous tax breaks to the developers and owners of the teams. Although these were great additions to Downtown they didn't help the Westside that much. The Schmoke administration came up with the Westside Master Plan that involved tearing down almost every building in the district. Historic preservationists lobbied against this and the plan was scrapped. That didn't mean renewal didn't start on Baltimore's once thriving retail and shopping district it just came in the form of reusing existing historic buildings. I don't believe that the stadiums were the catalysts for change in the Westside. The renovation of Lexington Market and the Hippodrome Theatre brought in the big bucks to the Westside I believe. New development and investment of note on the private sector include the Stewarts Building, The Hecht Company Building, Centerpoint, Bank of America Superblock, and the Zenith. Public investment of note include the expansion of the University of Maryland Campus and the 757 Hilton Convention Center Hotel with a "Green" roof.
Another pet project of the Schmoke Administration was Inner Harbor East. The Inner Harbor East Urban Renewal Plan was set up before Schmoke took office as well as the purchasing of the land that would become Inner Harbor East by John Paterakis. The majority of the planning and financing on both the public and private sector happened during the Schmoke years. Most of the physical construction took place during the O'Malley years and will continue through the Dixon years. Inner Harbor East brought a hodgepodge of upscale restaurants and bars, a whole foods, two hotels of the Marriott brand, office space Legg Mason will be moving there, and apartments and condos like Spinnaker Bay, Inner Harbor Lofts, and The Promenade at Inner Harbor East to name a few.
Some projects were never meant to have private investment. The projects in question are HOPE VI. HOPE VI was the brain child of Maryland Senator Barbara Mukulski which ear marked federal grants for distressed public housing developments mainly high rises to be torn down and rebuilt as mixed income communities consisting mostly of town homes. The ink barely dried on the bill before Baltimore received grants for its distressed high rises. The finished products were for the most part a huge success albeit suburban in nature. When President George W. Bush took office HOPE VI funds were slashed almost to the point of no return. Baltimore then took the place of the feds and began tearing other distressed public housing developments and coming up with mixed income neighborhoods to take their place.
At the turn of the century Baltimore elected Martin O'Malley as their mayor. O'Malley brought a number of new ideas that used public funds to encourage private investment. First there were SNAP or Strateic Neighborhood Action Plans which took six clusters of neighborhoods mostly on the outer edges of the city. These clusters were in decent shape but were just starting to show signs of slipping. The SNAPS were publicly funded and used market forces and highlighted the neighborhood attributes to funnel in private dollars and eliminate blight that was just begining to appear. Another is Area Master Plans or AMPS AMPS were designed for neighborhoods that are more in the inner city and have suffered from blight, crime, and poor living conditions much worse and much longer than their SNAP counterparts. Much more intense intervention is needed to turn these neighborhoods around, mainly redevelopment and displacement. Another one which superceeds the two is porject 5000 in which the city aquires 5000 vacant properties and sells them to investors for $5,000. The investor must in turn spend an undetermined amount of money to rehab the property based on its condition and either live in or sell it to a home owner.
Now the year is 2008 and Baltimore's waterfront is on the verge of being built out. Canton transformed itself on its own with little outside help. That didn't stop Canton Crossing, a new mixed use development from being built. Now we come to Westport. Developer Patrick Turner will develop the vacant middle branch waterfront into yet another high density mixed use development. The difference between Canton Crossing and Westport is that Canton has already experienced a rebirth while Westport remains blighted. But if history is any indicator existing Westport will make a strong comeback after its waterfront's $2 Billion make over. Now we come to the Biotech Park. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore's largest employer has decided to build a biotech park in the blighted Middle East neighborhood just north of its hospital. Along with the Biotech Park 1200-1500 new and rehabbed mixed income homes are on tap for Middle East and its neighbors. Upon its completion all of East Baltimore will be transfromed and thriving. The majority of the money will come from private investment but the city will pay for the relocation of residents and te demolitin of the blighted units, yet another public/private partnership.So there you have it transformation can take place in all different ways. Mostly it starts with a little public investment and if all goes right a lot of private investment. It's true that one hand washes the other. (This was a long post and I know I left some examples out)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Perkins Homes: Now It's Your Turn

"This is it right here. The Dividing Line Between Little Italy, and Perkins Homes. My mother was from over there and my father was from over there. I used to stand here as child and listen to the two communities living side by side Italian Serenades, and Billie Holiday I don't hear that anymore now all I hear is bang bang bang I'd give anything to hear the old neighborhood sounds again. " The character who recited that recolection was Al Giardello from NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street. He was talking about the good old days with a retiring friend and how much times have changed in Baltimore. They were no doubt on Eden Street which runs north south between the two communities.Perkins Homes is a public housing development in Southeast Baltimore that was built in the 1940s right around the time soldiers were returning home from World War II. No sooner than the soldiers could unpack their bags the flight to the suburbs was on. Everything surrounding Perkins Homes became either public housing high rises or blighted. The 1980s brought unprecedented change to Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Neighboring communities that were once blighted became the hottest addresses in Maryland. By the 1990s Perkins Homes had outlived its high rise counter parts and Lafayette Courts, Flaghouse Courts, and Broadway Homes had been torn down and replaced with Pleasent View Gardens, Albemarle Sqaure, and Broadway Overlook respectively. These new communities were lower density mixed income town home communities through HOPE VI funding. It was also during the 1990s that an old chunk of abandoned industrial land was redeveloped into Inner Harbor East. This spurred further reinvestment in other neighboring communities like Butchers Hill, Washington Hill, Patterson Park and Greektown.
Today, under the Dixon administration without the help of HOPE VI (Thank you President Bush) is tearing down blighted public housing. O'Donnell Heights and 100 units of Cherry Hill Homes hit the wrecking ball in late 2007 Somerset Homes and Westport Homes Extension are set to be demolished. There is talk of demolishing Douglass Homes and Latrobe Homes as well. All of these homes are blighted and are in desperate need of redevelopment as mixed income communities but this time as higher density mixed use communities as urban living becomes more popular once again. I don't think they've gotten very far in the planning process of what will go in the place of these developments.
Now back to Perkins Homes. It's high time for redevelopment of Perkins Homes. With Perkins Homes, the Western Washington Hill, and City Springs Elementary and Lombard Middle a large enough site can be assembled for redevelopment. What will go in its place will be town homes and apartments. The new homes will be five levels which consist of two two level town homes over top of each other and an apartment below the two town homes.
Lombard Middle is set to be closed and a brand new larger
City Springs Elementary will be built as an Elementary/Middle as more schools continue to close.
The sheer location of Perkins Homes warrants new development. East Baltimore as a whole will become desirable thanks to the Biotech Park north of Hopkins. Now It's Perkins Homes' turn.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Highlandtown and Eastern Avenue:Not Quite There Yet

Gentrification, it can spread like a super virus taking no prisoners, making once working and lower middle class communities glitzy sought after addresses with home prices and rents sky rocketing to unprecedented levels. Blighted boarded up homes and businesses can be become loft apartments and boutiques or they can hit the wrecking ball to make way for a brand new mixed use development. Gentrification can also be limited and contained within only a few blocks that immediately surround the development. In the case of the Inner Harbor it has spread like a super virus and the question is where will it hit next?
In the 1990s gentrification was taking place strictly south of Eastern Avenue in communities of Fels Point, Canton, and Inner Harbor East. The real estate boom of the first half of the 2000 decade investment jumped across Eastern Avenue west of Patterson Park. Upper Fels Point, Jonestown, Little Italy, Washington Hill, and Butchers Hill were quickly transformed. The momentum of the Inner Harbor and the East Baltimore Biotech Park has lead to private investment north of Patterson Park into Library Square and McElderry Park. When elected Mayor in 1999 Martin O'Malley started a campaign to encourage investment in good neighborhoods that are showing signs of slipping. The campaign was and is known as "Strategic Neigborhood Action Plans" or SNAPs. Many neighborhood clusters applied for this designation and the extreme southeastern neighborhoods among others received it. The cluster included Greektown, Bayview, O'Donnell Heights, Medford, Graceland and Broening Manor. So far so good O'Donnell Heights, a blighted public housing development is being demolished and rebuilt, Athena Square, a new town home development in Greektown is under construction, the Bayview area is being considered for high density Transit Oriented Development, and Eastern Avenue streetscape enhancements from I-95 to the CSX Bridge are under way. I ask Again where will it hit next?
The Answer is Highlandtown but it still has a long way to go . Highlandtown is located just west I-895, south of McElderry Park, North of Canton and Brewers Hill, and East of Patterson Park. Highlandtown and points east grew up with Bethlehem Steel in Dundalk as a means to house its tens of thousands of workers, in fact Highlandtown remained a part of Baltimore County until World War I. Highlandtown, although its residents were white, it was thought of as an ethnic and diverse community for its time. Although predominantly Polish, residents haled from Ireland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Italy. The neighborhood consists of row homes that are were cookie cutter, small and narrow in size and without the architectural panache of the grand homes to the north and west. Highlandtown thrived as a diverse European Immigrant community until after World War II. During this time Highlandtown gained a reputation for having some of Baltimore's best bars and pubs In addition to bars Highlandtown, mainly Eastern Avenue had many hair salons, Hampden wasn't the only place the "Bee Hive" hairdo was found. This reputation will play a role in the future of Highlandtown.
Those who could afford it moved to the suburbs and those who couldn't didn't. It wasn't until the major downsizing at Bethlehem Steel in the 1970s and 80s that decline really set in in Highlandtown. In the case of many city neighborhoods with white flight there was resettlement as a black community. This did not take place in Highlandtown. By the time of Highlandtown's decline there were strict laws that forbid blockbusting and not all residents were leaving so they fought any black settlers. In the 1990s Highlandtown continued to lose population and employment and gain crime while other southeast Baltimore neighborhoods were turning around and making a come back. One thing Highlandtown still had going for it was its pubs, with the combination of East Baltimore having tons of Breweries and the diversity of Highlandtown the bars provide a huge variety of food and drinks for their patrons.
By the year 2000, Highlandtown had a vacancy rate of 15%. At the same time Baltimore and America as a whole were preparing for a real estate boom. Baltimore didn't get the full effects of the boom, only the gentrified neighborhoods and Highlandtown. I think they have may have jumped the gun by pricing homes in Highlandtown so high simply because it's a stones throw from Patterson Park and Canton. The residents were still blue collar with a burgeoning Hispanic community as is the case with all neighborhoods near Patterson Park Unfortunately, the Hispanic community as a whole has been the greatest victims of shaky real estate practices . $300-$400k for an unrehabbed row home may be fine for Fels Point but not for Highlandtown. To jump start the Highlandtown market one must look into the past successes of Baltimore revitalization and I think you know where I'm going; homesteading. Not as extreme as the $1 row house in Otterbein but something like $175-$225k for unrehabbed row house in Highlandtown a market segment in Baltimore and Central Maryland that is under served. Vacancies are spread apart throughout the neighborhood leaving no room available for big redevelopment projects but I think that's a good thing for Highlandtown. Highlandtown will make a come back one rehabbed row house at a time.
Highlandtown has had some victories in the past, it's not all bleak. Eastern Avenue has been designated as one of Baltimore's "Main Streets", a Walgreens opened up recently , a new Southeast Anchor Branch of Enoch Pratt Free Library opened up this year and Highlandtown has also been designated as an "Arts and Entertainment District" which if Station North is any indication will gentrify Highlandtown in a New York minute.
Now what's next for Highlandtown? It's a very bare community that will benefit from additional trees, plantings, and streetscape enhancements. The price tags that are being asked for a house in Hghlandtown is one that only a cosmopolitan yuppie could afford so you know what that means. Yoga and Thai Chi studios, Coffee and Tea Bars, trendy upscale restaurants, and outdoor furniture and better lighting.Granted this is a pipe dream, Highlandtown and Eastern Avenue are still not there yet but it is food for thought and they're headed in that direction.