By Lauren Schiszik
Once a center of transportation and industry, Baltimore today is transforming into a center for technology, innovation, and life sciences. After reaching a peak population of almost 1 million in 1950, the city saw a sharp decline in the second half of the 20th century with the loss of industry and population. For the first time in more than 60 years, Baltimore has recently gained—rather than lost—population, and is currently leading the state in economic growth.
However, that growth has not been equitably distributed to the communities that have the greatest need for it. The legacies of 20th century residential segregation laws, federally sanctioned discriminatory redlining, block-busting, restrictive housing covenants, slum clearance, and urban renewal programs have resulted in deep-seated racial and economic inequities that have harmed generations of Baltimoreans, particularly African Americans. And this pattern is far from unique, as illustrated by Baltimore’s own Ta-Nehisi Coates in his essay on the case for reparations.
As a historic preservation planner for Baltimore City, I have seen a variety of tools used to effectively stabilize and revitalize historic neighborhoods that lack equitable development opportunities.
Baltimore City has a rich history and a strong preservation ethos. A 2014 Partnership for Building Reuse study (produced by the Preservation Green Lab) determined that Baltimore has more properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places than any other city in the nation. Additionally, a total of 5 percent of the city’s building stock is locally designated, which is slightly higher than other large cities like Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco.
Yet there is more opportunity for historic designation, as more than 90 percent of Baltimore’s buildings are 50 years or older. Dozens of neighborhoods could benefit from access to historic tax credits, loans, and grants. However, historic designations require both money and time, which can be significant barriers. Recently, Baltimore Heritage and Seawall Development have collaborated with neighborhoods to achieve National Register Historic District designation. And historic preservation planners continue to work with communities that request designation of landmarks and historic districts at the local level.
Historic Tax Credits as a Tool for Revitalization
Baltimore City offers a generous 10-year property tax credit for rehabilitation of properties designated at the local, state, or national levels. The credit requires that the project cost 25 percent of the appraised value of the property, which tends to encourage rehabilitation of properties that need a substantial amount of work or are not located in strong housing markets. It has been a highly successful tool for rehabbing vacant properties in neighborhoods citywide.
The Oliver neighborhood in East Baltimore is a prime example. Just 10 years ago, this area and its almost 1,000 vacant homes and high rates of crime served as the fictitious “Hamsterdam” in HBO’s “The Wire.” The neighborhood has since taken a positive turn due to a variety of initiatives. The local tax credit has been an essential tool for developers like Come Home Baltimore and The Reinvestment Fund, which work collaboratively with residents, churches, and community groups to rehabilitate vacant homes and promote equitable reinvestment. Established homeowners are gaining equity in their homes through increased property values, new families are moving to the neighborhood, and targeted policing efforts are significantly decreasing crime.
Incorporating Equity into Planning and Preservation
Baltimore’s Department of Planning is working to incorporate equity into our development review process, forming the Equity in Planning Committee (EIPC) in early 2015 to determine how we, as urban planners, can address the systemic racial and economic injustices in Baltimore. Those goals became more pressing following the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent Baltimore Uprising in April 2015. One of the committee’s core purposes is creating tools that evaluate equity in our department and in the development projects that we review. We are drawing on programs that address equity in development in other cities, like Seattle’s Equitable Development Implementation Plan and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Equity in Sustainability Program.
EIPC has developed an “equity lens” and framework for implementation. The Department of Planning and other agencies can use this lens to consider structural, procedural, distributional, and transgenerational equity when reviewing policies, capital investments, and development projects. EIPC also hosts a speaker series and a book club to discuss issues like equity in economic development and housing in the city and is coordinating a day-long training about equity in planning for all department staff.
In many jurisdictions, zoning plays a critical role in shaping how places develop by regulating how land can be used. When Baltimore’s current zoning code was adopted in 1971, it included separated land use, a popular planning tool at the time. It led to many mixed-use historic rowhouse neighborhoods being blanketed with residential zoning, effectively shuttering businesses and altering the character and economy of these neighborhoods.
After 46 years and a lengthy zoning rewrite process with extensive public input, a comprehensive update to Baltimore’s zoning code will be implemented in June 2017. This update will have positive impacts on the city at large, and certain changes are targeted to strengthen historic neighborhoods. The new code will allow more flexibility in the redevelopment of existing buildings, making long-vacant buildings ripe for adaptive reuse. It will also allow the reintroduction of commercial uses into rowhouse neighborhoods. And a new Industrial Mixed Use District will allow for the conversion of historic industrial buildings into artist live-work spaces, offices, and retail. These zoning updates not only offer greater viability for preserving historic buildings but they also create walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that foster inclusive communities.
One of the benefits of historic designation is that government projects’ negative impacts on historic resources and communities can be mitigated. An upcoming multibillion dollar federal project to realign a portion of the Baltimore and Potomac (B&P) Railroad Tunnel is an excellent example of positive, meaningful relief for impacted communities. Consultation with community groups, advocacy organizations, and government agencies resulted in an agreement to provide millions of dollars in grant funds to support historic preservation, community development, and recreation facilities—as well as project-related job training and hiring preferences for local workers—for the historic African American neighborhoods that will be negatively impacted by the realignment.
Maryland is investing significant funds into Baltimore through several initiatives managed by the Department of Housing and Community Development. One of the endeavors, Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise (Project C.O.R.E.), is directed at right-sizing and reinvestment efforts. While the majority of the state and local funding is going to demolition and deconstruction—which will require mitigation in designated historic neighborhoods—the funding for building stabilization has received less publicity. A half million dollars was awarded to the Upton Planning Committee for building stabilization in the local historic district of Upton’s Marble Hill—once home to Thurgood Marshall and many other Civil Rights leaders.
Another initiative from the state is the Storefront Improvement Program, which provides façade improvements for commercial properties damaged in the protests that followed Freddie Gray’s death. Preservation Maryland lobbied for funding to help these businesses, located in underserved communities, rebuild and reopen. Fifty businesses received façade improvements through the $650,000 grant program, and an expansive group of preservation and community development partners provided technical assistance. The businesses, having reopened, are adding curb appeal in their neighborhoods, and the project provided construction job training for Baltimore youth through Civic Works’ YouthBuild program.
Baltimore has bright spots when it comes to equity in historic preservation, development, and community reinvestment, but there is more work to be done increasing opportunities for equitable development. Strong partnerships between agencies, nonprofit organizations, developers, and communities can enhance these opportunities for citizens.
Lauren Schiszik is a historic preservation planner for the Baltimore City Department of Planning and a staff member to the Baltimore City Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation.