Last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake his new plan for revitalizing West Baltimore called Project C.O.R.E., a $700 million commitment to, above all things, eradicate blight. He made the announcement in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, the home of Freddie Gray, the young black man whose death while in police custody helped spark the uprising that helped fix the governor’s attention on West Baltimore.
"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 in his announcement. "We have heard your calls for action.”
Project C.O.R.E. (Creating Opportunities for Renewal and Enterprise) ultimately will require a great deal of fleshing out. What has been revealed about the four-year plan is about $75 million in demolition work targeting vacant buildings in West Baltimore, already underway. The state is offering another $600 million worth of “financing opportunities” to redevelop the neighborhoods once they’ve been cleared. The goal is to have 20 blocks leveled in the project’s first year, replaced with empty lots and greenspace until developers begin taking advantage of those financial opportunities.
Blight is easily one of Baltimore’s most visible problems, given the roughly 16,000 abandoned homes currently vandalizing the city’s canvas. Hogan’s project serves a real need, and the dollars he’s devoted are an impressive investment for neighborhoods that have seen mostly disinvestment over the past several decades. But this is not entirely what West Baltimore has been asking for. The proposal only skims the surface of what these communities have been planning themselves for the last 15 years.
What many West Baltimore residents and activists had been calling for are better transit options to get them downtown and to neighborhoods in East Baltimore where the jobs are. Up until Hogan took office, they had that coming. The state had approved a 14-mile, west-to-east Baltimore transit project called the Red Line, something called for as early as 1965, and that has been in the works since 2002. A combined sum of roughly $288 million was spent by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the state on its planning and development—and not just for the Red Line itself, but for revitalization efforts in the communities along its corridor, especially in the west.
But Hogan abruptly killed off the Red Line project last year within his first six months as governor. The state had committed $1.235 billion to the project before Hogan took office. Hogan repurposed that money for a highway improvement program. Baltimore ultimately lost out on $900 million that the federal government had pledged for the Red Line.
This Red Line project overview from Baltimore city’s website lists of all the neighborhoods and agencies that had signed on to the new transit route, and their plans for how to capitalize on it. This took a lot of convincing of residents of long-neglected communities who’ve had no shortage of reasons to distrust any project proposed by government officials. Dozens of government, business, philanthropic, and community leaders across the Baltimore region signed the Red Line Community Compact, a commitment to ensuring that the project would serve the city’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Vernice Miller-Travis, a senior associate at the firm Skeo Solutions and long-time community organizer, helped shepherd a coalition of West Baltimore neighborhood associations through a series of strategizing sessions around Red Line planning. She calls the outreach and engagement for the project “the gold standard” for how transit-oriented community development should be done. This West Baltimore Moving Forward Action report is worth reading to get a sense of how difficult it was to get West Baltimore communities to first agree with each other about the Red Line project, and then to trust the government forces behind it.
“I’ve never seen public transportation planning as thorough as what was done for the Red Line,” says Miller-Travis.
At a community forum last September, Cynthia Shaw, president of the Lyndhurst Community Association in the west Baltimore neighborhood Edmondson Village, explained the broader ramifications of Hogan’s decision. A summary of that forum from the Citizens Planning & Housing Association, the Baltimore-based nonprofit that coordinated the event, highlights Shaw’s comments:
Ms. Shaw and her neighbors worked closely with Red Line staff in pushing for improvements to their community that would be coupled with the new transit station. But with the Red Line now cancelled, she no longer has anyone to work with in improving her neighborhood. Given the lack of community development resources along much of the Red Line’s route, the project’s community liaisons were the principle mechanism through which residents along the line could
have their voices heard in shaping their community. Although the line has been cancelled, these residents still want to improve their neighborhoods, but now do not have anyone to turn to in voicing their ideas and concerns.
Hogan has offered little insight to the public about why he so quickly extinguished the transit project. Transit advocates have FOIA’d the Hogan administration for more information about the Red Line cancellation to no avail. It couldn’t have been a cost-saving move, as Hogan claims, given he simply shifted all of those funds to improving roads and highways—improvements that will happen everywhere in Maryland except Baltimore.
The unresolved questions about Hogan’s Red Line decision have led advocates to push for more transparency around the state’s transportation policies in general. Hogan’s transit veto closely resembled that of his buddy Chris Christie who killed the Hudson River train tunnel project shortly after becoming governor of New Jersey—a decision haunting him in his current run for president.
Baltimore residents have a decent medley of public transit options, but they mostly flow from north to south. There are far less, if any, transit options for traveling west to east, though, a huge burden on the predominantly African-American and low-income neighborhoods of West Baltimore. Those burdens have subjected the Hogan administration to a Title VI Civil Rights Act complaint, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. (NAACP LDF) in December 2015.
“Everyone who knows this city knows that the lack of rapid transit restricts access to jobs and housing for low and middle income African-American residents living along the city’s east-west corridor,” said NAACP LDF president Sherrilyn Ifill, who has lived in Baltimore County and helped a black community on Maryland’s eastern shore in a legal fight over a planned highway bypass in the 1990s.*
From the LDF complaint:
The Red Line would also have served as the necessary link connecting West Baltimore’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods to job centers. The Red Line corridor is sixty percent African-American and contains forty-three separate Environmental Justice (EJ) areas. Unemployment rates in the neighborhoods along Edmondson Avenue are extremely high: 17.5 percent in Poppleton; 17.9 percent in Allendale; 22.7 percent in Edmondson Village and inHarlem Park/Sandtown-Winchester; and 24.1 percent in Greater Rosemont—compared to the city’s overall unemployment rate of 14.2 percent. Travel poses a barrier for jobseekers in these neighborhoods; less than two percent of jobs within the city of Baltimore, let alone the metropolitan region, are located in these communities. The regional job centers are located downtown, in Woodlawn, and in other outlying suburban areas, which are difficult to reach on the public bus routes which are currently the only available form of public transportation.
According to the complaint, 44 percent of the households along the proposed Red Line corridor have no vehicle. The Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, over a third of the employed population of Sandtown-Winchester and Harlem Park have work commutes longer than 45 minutes, compared with 20 percent for the rest of the city. Whether taking the bus or driving, Baltimore is among the most congested in the nation when it comes to traffic.
Ben Cohen, assistant director of transportation and workforce programs for the BWI Business Partnership, discusses how transportation is the make-or-break issue when it comes to steady employment in the region in the Red Line Community Compact report.
“It costs five to ten thousand dollars a year for the average person to commute to their job,” says Cohen. “When you have somebody making $20,000 a year, the employer just cannot expect that the employee can afford a reliable vehicle. If we can lower turnover costs by providing reliable transportation, that’s an economic development benefit for businesses.”
Hogan’s new C.O.R.E. project ostensibly stands to give something back to the West Baltimore communities he took away from with his Red Line erasure. But the blight-focused initiative does not address those communities’ mobility and commuter issues. C.O.R.E. might still help revitalize West Baltimore neighborhoods, but it also leaves its residents trapped in place. In that respect, Hogan’s decision to focus on blight rather than transit is like a doctor prescribing herbal supplements to an immobilized patient, when what she really needs is a wheelchair.
“It’s cool to demolish vacant buildings, but for places like Sandtown-Winchester, there are a lot of needs all over the place, but the biggest one is probably jobs,” says Richard Hall, executive director of the Citizens Planning & Housing Association. “People in that community have to go through some amazing steps to get to jobs that are farther out, so they rely on transit, and that was one of the core features of the Red Line.”
A 2009 economic impact study performed for by the city’s transportation department found that the Red Line would have generated over $2 billion in economic activity and 9,801 jobs—not counting jobs created by the businesses developed along its corridor.
Perhaps the biggest insult to West Baltimore from Hogan’s C.O.R.E. project, though, is that it feels an awful lot like he’s plopping it on West Baltimore without consulting with the communities. And, frankly, community buy-in is an absolute imperative here given how politicians have made many past promises to the people living there, only to disappoint.
“[Hogan] came in and dismissed all of that work and came up with ideas on his own that make no sense for those communities,” says Miller-Travis.
“When I look at [Hogan’s] current transportation plans and Project C.O.R.E., I’m looking at what looks like a plan designed to cater to those moving into the city as opposed to those living here now,” says Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University’s School of Community Health & Policy in Baltimore.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board recently weighed in on Hogan’s urban renewal plans and put it this way:
As welcome as the governor's willingness to undertake this initiative may be, it comes six months after his disappointing decision to kill the proposed Red Line light rail project, which not only involved far more money in construction work but also would have had far reaching economic development consequences across a wide swath of the city. The demolition funding and construction incentives still don't get him back to the starting point as far as investment in Baltimore is concerned.
The op-ed went on to offer a few suggestions for how Hogan’s new project can do right by Baltimore, after wronging it so badly on the Red Line. First among those is that he should “start with the community.” But in many ways, it’s too late for that, because that would have meant taking seriously the plans the community had already laid down.
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct a sentence suggesting Sherrilyn Ifill had been successful in a legal fight stopping highway construction on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The attempt was not successful.