On the Soapbox:

Development Ambivalence

by Lynda Lambert
Umbrella organizations like Greater Homewood, which used to speak for the communities they represent, now basically decide for those communities. This is the wrong way to go about development.

Development. When I hear that word, I never know whether to clap my hands for joy or cover my ears in fear.

People in power--the city, the Benefits Districts, the erstwhile "community spokepeople"--are always saying we need development to save the city. They've been saying it for 25 years.

I've seen a lot of what was called development by the pundits, but the city is worse off than it was 25 years ago.

The problem, as I see it, is that at some point in time, the City decided it was its right and responsibility to decide what kind of development would be welcomed into its boundaries. On top of that was the unwritten decision to be guided by developers and what they wanted to do in the city.

The first such decision may have been made 23 years ago, when the Inner Harbor shopping centers were built. A fair number of Baltimoreans--myself included--wanted to maintain the park that had become a mid-day hang-out for brown-bag lunchers and a week-end destination for families. Still, that was common area, and was perhaps the City's decision to make. During those years, the "Schaefer Years," the neighborhoods still decided what was to go on within their bounds.

The hotel/motel that was slated for the parking lot on 32nd Street is a good example. The Charles Village Civic Association, Waverly Improvement Association and others got together and said "No, we don't want it!" The developers were told, "Sorry, neighborhood doesn't want it." And, the developers represented big names like Hopkins and Union Memorial. Yet, they didn't get what they wanted.

Such quick response to neighborhood needs and wants is no longer the case.

Umbrella organizations like Greater Homewood, which used to speak for the communities they represent, now basically decide for those communities. The Charles Village Benefits District reaches out to developers, but not the neighborhood. And what the City can't convince people to do, it gets around by using powers of condemnation.

As I see it, the Zoning Board and the Planning Department are now just rubber stamps for developers' plans. "Any development is good development" seems to be the slogan, even when it destroys one-of-a-kind historic houses, or eliminates inner-city green space, or breaks neighborhoods apart.

Loyola's new 50,000-seat stadium slated for Woodberry's "wilderness" is a case in point. A large university and the City's development arms are intending to impose this an unwanted development. And be damned the fact that digging up the old landfill site may release PCBs and pollute a quartermile radius. Who cares if traffic will increase ten-fold on streets already too crowded with traffic? And what difference, say the City and planners, that the communities don't want it? Hey, it's Loyola. Gotta accommodate them.

There have been some recent evidence that some individual businesses will work with neighborhoods instead of against them if given the chance. In the case of the expansion of the BP-Amoco station at 33rd & Greenmount, BP wanted to transform their current station into a much bigger complex, according to sources at the Waverly Improvement Association. But amazingly, rather than fight the community, as Loyola is doing, BP decided to work with the neighborhood to find a size and use mix that everyone would be happy with.

Of course, it would have been even easier had BP asked the community BEFORE it made its original plan. It might have sent around a questionnaire saying, "Would you like the following services at 33rd and Greenmount?" Then, listing them, given each individual neighborhood resident a chance to answer.

There is, amazingly, a similar type of questionnaire being circulated right now in Mt. Vernon. I haven't seen one, but I'm told that it asks things like, "What kinds of services do you think we need?" and "What additional cultural attractions would you like in the area?"

It's a beginning. But asking people what they would like to have or what they need still doesn't address the how and where of it. It would still be the City government and developers who would decide what goes where. And this is what has been making neighborhoods run screaming when they hear the word development.

I would bet that almost any neighborhood in Baltimore would welcome diverse types of development, if they were allowed, once again, to be part of the process. Not after the fact, not when it's a fait accompli, but when no money has yet been spent, when no one has yet gotten zoning changes or torn down buildings, or done any bloody thing that can't be undone.

Development between neighborhoods also needs to be orchestrated. I mean, think about it. Loyola is trying to impose its 50,000-seat stadium on Woodberry. Well... see... we had this 50,000 seat stadium.... but it was torn down.

Baltimore is a city of unique neighborhoods, each with different needs. Some need a Giant store; some need a Book Block. Some need just to be left alone. Each should have the choice. It is not the City government or the developers who should have the power to decide.

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This story was published on March 2, 2002.