Baltimore and the Fear of Density

On October 12, WYPR’s Midday with Dan Rodricks hosted David Dixon, FAIA, head of Planning and Urban Design at Goody Clancy in Boston; Tom Murphy, former Pittsburgh Mayor and current Senior Resident Fellow for Urban Development at the Urban Land Institute; and Klaus Philipsen, FAIA, Principal of ArchPlan here in Baltimore. (Here’s a link to the show’s podcast, and a Goody Clancy blog post on the subject.)

The show was promoting an event with the same participants that was held later that night as part of AIA Baltimore’s Architecture Month, titled Shrinking City/Growing City – Baltimore’s Future? In light of the fact that Baltimore has lost a third of its population since 1950, Dixon and Murphy (moderated by Philipsen) debated, as the Goody Clancy blog post says,  “whether Baltimore should embrace and plan for a new, smaller size (Murphy) or should try to capitalize on undervalued strengths to turn shrinkage into expansion (Dixon).”

I am firmly in Dixon’s camp on this one, but I am constantly surprised at how few others in Baltimore are. Sure, lots of people talk about how we need jobs and how we need to get all the vacants rehabbed, but when the time comes for a developer to come in and make it happen, there are a million reasons why it shouldn’t happen. Not in MY backyard, of course. (At a recent community meeting in my neighborhood of Remington regarding a potential RFP for 10 houses that had been vacant eyesores for 20 years, some homeowners on that block insisted that the RFP explicitly restrict the sale of the finished homes to resident homeowners; they literally said they’d rather see the houses vacant than occupied by renters.)

David Dixon related a similar story from work he had done in Baltimore. This was in response to a caller (42:40 on the podcast) who suggested that most of Baltimore’s vacant houses should be demolished and replaced with park land (the following conversation begins at 44:21):

DAN RODRICKS: A lot of us have driven past these abandoned lots in East and West Baltimore and said: “Why don’t we just plant some trees, or put a park there?”

DAVID DIXON: I would say, as an interim measure, just fine. I had the honor and pleasure of leading a planning effort for O’Donnell Heights about three years ago – basically, a reuse plan. It was a very interesting process, and frankly, not fully successful, because O’Donnell Heights and the area around it are part of the change going on in Baltimore, and it takes time to work with people and help them understand change. Klaus said that people should be able to make decisions about their neighborhood; to make decisions, people need to understand what is happening to their neighborhoods, to themselves and their neighbors. So we did a market study for O’Donnell Heights, and because so many people want to live in cities, and it’s relatively close in, if you create the right housing stock – cool lofts, enough density so you can support some life on the street, some retail, some amenities, SOME park space, but not too much, because people love to play in parks, but parks…are a place where vitality can play out, but they don’t actually create that vitality. You need enough critical mass of people living, working, shopping, playing, etc. The folks who lived around O’Donnell Heights were really worried about seeing 5-story loft buildings, and rowhouses, and other things…they probably would have preferred that it be a park – frankly, to their own detriment. I don’t mean to speak for them, but because the 800-1,000 housing units that could replace what’s around O’Donnell Heights could actually bring a Main Street life, (it) could bring a great deal of amenity and life for the larger neighborhood. (Emphasis mine.)

So, what is that? Is it a fear of gentrification? A fear that walkup apartments equal crime (and an attendant ignorance of the fact that many middle class people truly do want that kind of housing)? A simple “I don’t like this, so therefore nobody does” kind of thing? A worry about parking?

Whatever it is, how do we get beyond it? Baltimore was probably overcrowded at 900,000 in 1950, but there’s no reason we can’t add another 150,000 people without resorting to large-scale clearance and reconstruction.

We can do it. We aren’t Detroit.

But what will the neighbors say?