By Luke Broadwater and Yvonne Wenger
Calling Baltimore's abandoned rowhouses "hotbeds for crime," Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday announced a nearly $700 million plan to tear down thousands of vacant buildings and replace them with new developments -- a level of investment in Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods some say is unprecedented.
In Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray grew up, the governor joined Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in pledging $94 million over four years to demolish 4,000 vacant properties citywide and $600 million in subsidies to encourage redevelopment.
The money -- most of which will come from the state -- will allow a fourfold increase in the demolition of vacant city properties, followed by major new funding to rebuild.
"I don't recall there was ever an infusion of this magnitude," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, who shepherded redevelopment in Baltimore under four mayors. "This is a great moment for the city. Take advantage of the moment. This is unlikely to happen again."
The Republican governor and Democratic mayor -- who have publicly sparred at times -- vowed to work together.
Hogan called Baltimore the "core" of Maryland.
"As I walked the streets of this city, people were repeatedly calling out and begging us to help do something about the blight that is all around them," Hogan said. "We have heard your calls for action... I'm a guy on a mission who wants to get things done."
Rawlings-Blake called the plan "demolition dollars on steroids." She thanked Hogan for partnering with the city.
"Despite what the media wants to say about the relationship between the city and state, we do get along," Rawlings-Blake said.
City officials estimate 20 blocks will be demolished in the first year. Demolished properties will first be turned into green spaces before they are offered to developers, including through the city's Vacants to Values program.
The announcement took place in the 1000 block of N. Stricker Street, where demolition began just minutes after the news conference ended. Gray lived and was arrested in the neighborhood.
His death in April sparked weeks of protests and a day of rioting, and drew national attention to conditions in the city's poorest neighborhoods. Baltimore, with a population of more than 622,000, has about 16,000 vacant buildings and 14,000 vacant lots, according to city figures.
Under the new plan, called Project C.O.R.E, the Maryland Stadium Authority will oversee the demolition of vacant structures jointly approved by city and state leaders. About $75 million in state dollars will go to demolition over four years with another $19 million coming from the city.
In addition, the state plans to offer about $600 million in financing opportunities from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development for redevelopment of the sites, including more than $150 million in the current fiscal year. The spending will go before the Maryland General Assembly and Baltimore City Council for approval.
Brodie, a former city housing commissioner, said he believes the spending announced Tuesday is greater than the money pumped into projects under Mayor William Donald Schaefer in the 1970s, including the creation of Old Town Mall and the "dollar house" program.
The investment also is greater than the $130 million in public and private money that was spent to build or renovate about 1,000 houses in Sandtown from 1989 to 1999, an effort spearheaded by famed urban planner James Rouse.
Many in Maryland, both Democrats and Republicans, greeted Tuesday's announcement with praise.
The Rev. Jamal H. Bryant, pastor at the Empowerment Temple in Northwest Baltimore, called the investment "absolutely amazing."
Bryant said he hopes the plan will include hiring local people for construction or other jobs associated with the spending. "Housing is one piece of the puzzle, but it all goes back to economics," Bryant said. "I hope this is the beginning of an economic agenda for our community."
House Minority Leader Nic Kipke predicted that Hogan would receive solid support from Republican lawmakers. "The governor's heart is in the right place," he said. "This is a meaningful step toward resolving a serious problem that has existed in Baltimore City for decades."
Kipke, who represents Anne Arundel County, said Republicans will be reassured because "the governor's not writing a blank check to Baltimore City" but managing the funds through the stadium authority.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch called it "very beneficial for the governor to step up and help meet the needs of the mayor."
Busch, an Annapolis Democrat whose leadership team has proposed its own plans to help Baltimore, questioned how the displacement of people who live in blighted areas would be handled, but he said he looks forward to working with the governor and mayor to craft a program.
Others were more skeptical.
Ray Kelly, a community builder with the No Boundaries Coalition in Sandtown-Winchester, said the demolition needs to be accompanied by a strategy to deal with unintended consequences. Razing blight, he said, could scatter drug dealers into surrounding neighborhood streets. Police will need to be ready to respond by increasing patrols, he said.
Kelly said he is also worried that the well-intended plan could turn into "just another gentrification initiative." While optimistic, Kelly said he wants officials to work closely with residents. "Is there a program or a plan in place for the people who have lived in the community, and struggled through the blight, so that they can afford these new properties?"
Brodie also offered cautionary advice. He said officials must create a plan with neighborhood residents, private developers, nonprofits and faith groups in East and West Baltimore. The amount of planning necessary can't be underestimated, he said.
Maryland's housing secretary, Kenneth C. Holt, said the incentives will include loans, grants, tax incentives and $200 million in bonds. He said all projects will go through a competitive bidding process.
"There will be redevelopment plans that will run the gamut: Affordable projects, mixed-used projects and market-based projects," Holt said. "These redevelopment plans will focus on schools jobs, transit and fit into the fabric of the city as conceived by the community. This is a bottom-up approach."
City residents living in the largely vacant blocks will be relocated to better housing, Holt said. "The state will be subsidizing the relocation costs," he added.
Johns Hopkins University sociologist Stefanie DeLuca called the plan encouraging and overdue. "The question of whether it could be transformative is more challenging," she said, saying urban redevelopment projects have had mixed success.
What's clear, she said, is that ridding city neighborhoods of vacant houses removes an impediment to urban development.
"Vacant buildings are their own billboards for poverty, and that is not an inviting signal for anyone," DeLuca said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.
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