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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 3, NO. 5 -- AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2001
 

A Vision for East Baltimore

By Laurence Aurbach

There are several ways of seeing East Baltimore.

It's a place where vacant, boarded-up buildings and empty lots are more common than occupied homes. It's an area that struggles with high rates of crime and drug abuse, low incomes and low educational achievement. Relations with dominant city institutions are strained, marked by suspicion and distrust.

It's also a neighborhood with a strong, supportive faith community and 13 churches. Longtime residents, community groups, and spiritual and political leaders are dedicated to improving the neighborhood. At the neighborhood's edge, Johns Hopkins Hospital is a renowned teaching and research hospital that employs 25,000. There is good mass transit service with the potential to expand, and many historic properties that date from the 19th century.

For the new urbanist firm Urban Design Associates, the challenge was to address all these aspects while developing a vision for the neighborhood's future. On July 25, UDA principal Ray Gindroz presented the results of a 3-day charrette held in the neighborhood. Much was familiar to the audience in the First John Tabernacle Baptist Church, for many had participated and watched the plan take shape.

The task of the charrette was to bring together residents and interest groups, and to accommodate a complex program of multiple redevelopment efforts. There was a great deal of history to build on. The city, state of Maryland, Johns Hopkins and community groups have been in partnership since 1992 when Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, Inc. (HEBCAC) was formed to improve East Baltimore. The centerpiece of the current proposal is a 1.4 million square-foot private biotech facility that would provide 5,000 jobs. This would be a catalyst for large-scale improvement, including mixed-income housing plus new community facilities.

Gindroz presented his firm's work as a design in process. Recognizing that much work remained to be done in gaining community support, the UDA plan contains a "kit of parts" that can be applied in flexible ways according to neighborhood needs. The kit includes street narrowing, modification of the street grid to make greens and squares, and a variety of housing options. The proposed 3- or 4-story biotech facility may be located by the hospital to provide access for workers and a transitional seam to the residential areas. A linear park with a new commuter rail station would strengthen a neighborhood boundary.

The audience was deeply concerned about displacement, affordability and the need for social/educational programs. Support services during the transition are seen as vital. Some speakers were concerned that crime would be shifted to nearby neighborhoods. Several residents expressed their optimism, while others were skeptical and wary.

The next step for Mayor O'Malley's administration is to determine if widespread support exists for the plan. If all goes smoothly, acquisition of properties by the city could begin as early as spring 2002. Throughout the upcoming dialogue the UDA concept will be a rallying point for further action. As such, it is a major step forward in the revitalization of East Baltimore.