- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

BALTIMORE (AP) - If the proposed $2.6 billion Red Line light rail route is built, it has two ways to go.

It could be a catalyst in transforming West Baltimore from an economically distressed area with an abundance of vacant properties into a revitalized urban area. Or it could be just another poorly thought-out transportation project that fails to capitalize on its potential.

The proposed route of the Red Line follows along Edmondson Avenue and U.S. 40, which is home to some of the densest clusters of city-owned property in Baltimore. Although the properties may not seem like assets now, they could become attractive investments for developers looking to cash in on transit-oriented development.

“I view it as a benefit the city has, in its coffers, not only certain economic resources but the land itself,” said Michael Runnels, an associate professor at Loyola University’s Sellinger School of Business.

About 10 percent of the city-owned properties are concentrated in the Harlem Park, Franklin Square, Poppleton and Midtown-Edmondson neighborhoods that immediately surround the proposed Red Line in West Baltimore. Of the city-owned properties in those neighborhoods, about 30 percent are vacant homes.

Al Barry, owner of land use consultation firm AB Associates and a former Baltimore assistant planning director, said city ownership of properties presents a long-range opportunity to control planning and ultimately development close to planned Red Line stations.

“The city certainly would be wise not to do any premature disposition of those properties unless they understood how they would reinforce, and ultimately add value to these transit stations. It doesn’t mean they keep them vacant, either,” Barry said. “It may be that some of those neighborhoods should be reinforced as permanently middle-class residential neighborhoods, and to the extent there’s any interest of this independent of the Red Line the city ought to be looking at getting those properties back on the tax rolls.”

But Barry also said his instinct is that the Red Line itself won’t spur any significant new development in West Baltimore. He said the larger impact would come from a plan for development near the West Baltimore MARC station, and better planning on a regional level linking transportation lines.

“The city has not had a good track record of attracting development around any of the outer city stations, whether it’s light rail or the Metro,” Barry said.

City officials undoubtedly are pleased at the prospect of the Red Line wiping out scores of abandoned homes and vacant buildings. That would make a dent in what is a mammoth inventory of city-owned properties.

According to data provided by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s office in March, the city owns 11,445 residential and commercial properties citywide. Of those, 21 percent are vacant homes.

Baltimore is hardly alone in grappling with the problem of city-owned vacant properties. Philadelphia, for instance, has as many as 10,000 city-owned properties, according to the group Land Bank Now in Philadelphia.

Vacant properties can often be a drain on neighborhoods. They generally become eyesores and lead to increased crime and reduced property values. And they significantly retard economic development in the area.

Rawlings-Blake’s administration has developed programs designed to combat the spread of vacant homes. The Vacants to Values initiative is aimed at either demolishing city-owned properties and turning them into green space or finding developers to rehabilitate homes or lots.

But the initiatives have only targeted a relative handful of the thousands of vacant properties. Housing experts say that only large-scale private development can deal with the magnitude of the problem.

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