COMMUNITY WATCH:

Community Activists Find Their Efforts Trumped by Developers Aided by City Government

by Myles Hoenig

What do we say to communities that work very hard to develop plans for themselves, in consultation with City agencies, non-profits, and developers and then are told by more powerful entities that they have a better idea?
The proposed redevelopment of the Northern Police Station in Hampden by Baltimore Lab School as promoted by developer consultant Al Barry III is just another assault on the hard work done by communities to design their neighborhood as they see fit.

Mr. Barry also happens to chair the Jones Falls Valley Master Plan—but to this day community representatives are not permitted to sit on the task force that oversees the Plan, which inevitably affects communities.

Too often in Baltimore the powerful consultants, developers, and institutions come in and expect planning to go their way, and they usually get what they want.

What do we say to communities that work very hard to develop plans for themselves, in consultation with City agencies, non-profits, and developers and then are told by more powerful entities that they have a better idea? This is what turns citizens off from trying to make a difference. Why should residents volunteer their time away from home, homework with the kids, dinner, etc., when all their work is often ignored down the road?

Their voices, in too many cases, are not given equal weight. We’ve seen too many attempts to address this, such as PlanBaltimore and the Neighborhood Congress, which have all ended in failure.

Hampden is not alone is this struggle for self-identity. We’ve seen it happen in Waverly and now in Charles Village. Even Guilford was not spared when an institution had its own plans for expansion.

For many years the communities around Memorial Stadium worked very hard to get us where we are today with the Stadium Place project. Yet it was Preservation Maryland, with Comptroller Schaefer on its Board and the most vocal and powerful spokesman, that attempted to reverse the process after it was concluded. Fortunately, their efforts were not successful, but the waste of time and energy to fight this took its toll. Although there are still a few bumps in the road, Stadium Place is now moving ahead.

Some neighborhoods, such as vulnerable Woodberry, are simply rolled over by more powerful interests supported by the Mayor’s Office, disregarding the intelligence of residents who know their neighborhood best and who worked hard on a comprehensive neighborhood plan.

Development should happen, but never at the expense or destruction of a community.

Charles Village is facing a similar threat. As a community they settled on a plan to redevelop the area along the corridor of St. Paul and Charles streets. Now Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, along with Johns Hopkins University, are attempting to rewrite the existing PUD (Planned Unit Development) to their specifications.

How do they get away with it? Clearly, they have the ear of the Mayor’s Office, and the communities can’t compete with that kind of access. As we know, the City Council is subservient to the Mayor. Very few Council members are willing to challenge the Mayor, even if it is in their constituents’ interests, and that became clearly evident in the Woodberry situation. Examine the methods used by the most favored developers and consultants. They have been around for many years and have remained consistent. On the other hand, community associations and their leadership change. The vast majority of these citizens who care so deeply are unpaid volunteers and do not take on such positions on a full-time basis. When change occurs, it is ridiculously easy for developers to come in and negotiate with a new crop of leaders who may not have the institutional memory that a successful corporation needs to have.

Development should happen, but never at the expense or destruction of a community. When communities act in good faith they should be rewarded for their labors. The development climate in Baltimore does not fare well for them. When Schaefer was Mayor he outwardly promoted neighborhood identity. This present administration and City Council have for a very long time taken sides with developers as the primary agent for growth in Baltimore.

After so many years of decline in Baltimore, it is certainly time that city government decision-makers actively respond with respect to each individual neighborhood. And those who were elected to office must finally realize that the communities are the real engine of growth and sustainability for this city—growth with soul and wisdom.


Myles Hoenig, a Waverly community leader, is a Green Party candidate for the 14th District, Baltimore City Council.



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This story was published on July 12, 2003.