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LOCAL News :: Baltimore MD : Protest Activity : Urban Development

Can You Afford Your Housing? "Are You Part of the Plan?"

20 protesters descended upon the public hearing of the Baltimore City Planning Commission at Frederick Douglas High School on April 1st. The protest's concern was inadequate input into the process of the City's acceptance of a Comprehensive Master Plan for urban development.
BALTIMORE - About 20 protesters descended upon the most recent hearing of the Baltimore City Planning Commission. The protest's concern was lack of participatory input into the process of the City's acceptance of a Comprehensive Master Plan. They fear low-income residents will be forced out of the City.

Outside the blue doors of the red brick public school was the table of The People's Planning Commission. In the distance, on the parking lot of Mondawmin Mall was an advertising truck with a yellow sign "Are You Part of the Plan to Make BaltiMORE than Ever? LIVE*EARN*PLAY*LEARN" announcing the April 1 meeting at Douglas. Inside the high school sat the Planning Commission: Peter Auchincloss (president), Otis Rolley (director), Douglas McCoach, Rikki Spector, Rita Church, Regina Clay Drake, Matthews Wright.

Indymedia spoke to protester Zelda Robinson. A resident of Midtown-Edmondson since the 1940s, Robinson said "I've seen my neighborhood when it was wonderful, filled to capacity. I've seen it after the riots, after which some were persuaded not to come back. I've seen people stay in the community, real anchors. I've seen our attempts to improve the neighborhood meet barriers making it difficult to make accomplishments." We asked Robinson if she thought elected officials and the Mayor's Office are sensitive to people on this issue. "No," she said, "I don't think people's thoughts get put into the Plan."

Inside Douglas High about 100 people were seated. Commissioner President Peter Auchincloss began the hearing first by noting that the deadline for the public commentary period was extended to April 17. The revised draft of the document will now be released on May 18 and the Planning Commission Adoption hearing was extended from April 20 to June 15. It seems the presence of citizens concerned about the process at this hearing, and previous ones, has had some effect.

Director Otis Rolley spoke for about one hour summarizing the plan, but with humor and eloquence, as even some critics admitted. Copies of the Executive Summary, which is organized under the themes of "Live, Earn, Play, Learn," were available to all present. See the Comprehensive Master Plan

Public testimony began with Jackie Carrera and George Friday of Parks and People Foundation. Parks and People work to expand and interlink green space throughout Baltimore. Carrera and Friday presented maps to illustrate their One Park idea and reported that the Planning Commission's work is consistent with theirs. See One Park

Jay Wolf Schlossberg-Cohen, an artist involved in the Midtown-Edmondson community, spoke about the need for the Commission to focus on affordable housing, a serious issue in his community where the median income is $17,500. Schlossberg-Cohen said that he had worked on Baltimore City's Arts Commission, but saw that "ideas were not used." There's a danger that the Commission and City government "appears as an oligarchy," he said. Schlossberg-Cohen suggested that the Commission needs "200 volunteers" to speak out in the communities as eloquently as Mr. Rolley had, but also "to get our input."

David Sloan, a student, criticized the language of the planning document. Use of democratic language, such as "citizen" and "resident," have been replaced in the document with the corporate language of "customer," "investor," "shareholder," according to Sloan. Director Rolley replied that Baltimore City is a corporation. Thinking with Sclossberg-Cohen, Sloan might have replied that "Yes, Baltimore City is a corporation run by an oligarchy."

The most substantive testimony was presented by Brother Jerry O'Leary of the Murphy Initiative for Justice and Peace. Again, the issue was affordable housing. While applauding that the Commission recognizes the need to have "moderately priced, quality housing in mixed income settings," the Murphy Initiative criticized the Commission's income analysis as inadequate. The Commission targets those with incomes between 80% and 120% of the Baltimore area median income of $59,324. The problem is not just with elderly and disabled persons on fixed incomes. "Of the 249,411 Baltimore City households listed in the 2000 census, 110,147 had incomes below $25,000 and 28,920 had incomes between $25,000 and $35,000." O'Leary testified that "to achieve truly affordable mixed income housing" the Commission should incorporate into its Master Plan ideas such as inclusionary zoning with density bonuses, housing trust funds, and community land trusts. See Keeping Housing Affordable in Baltimore City

Nick Petr, of the CampBaltimore artist collective, testified that "everyone I asked about the Comprehensive Master Plan did not know about it." Mr. Auchincloss replied that the Commission worked to get the word out, but "we haven't done well enough." He then listed all the efforts of the Planning Commission to publicize the Master Plan: copies of the Executive Summary to 935 neighborhood organizations, ads in the City Paper, Baltimore Messenger, Baltimore Times, Jewish Times, Afro-American, the public libraries and the area colleges and universities, 10,000 CD-Roms.

In this reporter's neighborhood Waverly, there was a public hearing on March 28 at City High School. I did not know about it, nor did others I asked. However, a local community activist reported that the public hearing signs were all over the place—on 33rd Street, by the Giant foodstore, the YMCA. Better Waverly Community Organization did not send anything out special about the hearing, yet some community members attended the hearing.

But then, where lies the "democracy deficit" the protesters see? It may lie in the lack of connection of the 14 City Council members to the 45,700+ members in each of their districts. It may lie in the lack of connection of the 935 neighborhood groups to an average of 685 residents per group. Maybe these 935 neighborhood groups should have the political power to hold the 14 City Council representatives accountable? A City Council rep who does not work to enhance citizen participation in their district on important issues, such as the Comprehensive Master Plan, should be held accountable. Maybe they should be directly recallable by their constituents through a structured process based in the 935 neighborhood groups?

But then maybe the leadership of the 935 neighborhood groups is part of the problem? Maybe activists and leaders of the 935 groups concentrate too much on issues specific to their neighborhoods. The neighborhood groups spend time lobbying their city council and state legislative reps on specific issues in their area and sometimes get what they want.

In Waverly a few years back, there were highly attended meetings about what the community thought should replace Memorial Stadium, set for destruction due to larger development plans. Of the three development options the City presented, it turned out that the Schmoke administration chose the one the majority of the Waverly community preferred—the YMCA and Senior housing project. [In May 1999, The Schmoke administration selected the Govans Ecumenical Development Corporation (GEDCO) project for multi-income senior housing for 446 residents, a YMCA, a community playground, and green space]. Yet, Waverly residents did not have the power to make the decision. While various neighborhood groups did organize the resident's participation in making their voices heard, it was Mayor Schmoke who made the decision. See Stadiums in Baltimore

And then, there's the accountability of the Mayor and the City executive branch? Are the City Council and the Mayor accountable to the citizens of Baltimore? Or are they accountable to the banks, the developers, big corporations, and big universities like Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland? In his 1977 book "Politics and Markets," political scientist Charles Lindblom developed the concept of "the privileged position of business" to understand US policy-making, local and national. Whatever the good intentions of the Planning Commission, it is plain enough to see that business is privileged in Baltimore's recent development.

The "privileged position of business" is reflected in the policies of elected officials. The neighborhood groups are fragmented, individualistic, turf-oriented. But where is ACORN on the Comprehensive Master Plan? ACORN organizes as a community union in low-income neighborhoods. A few years ago, they successfully organized the city-wide referendum campaign to create the 14 single-member Baltimore City Council districts. Their rhetoric included that of participatory democracy. But then, ACORN and the 935 neighborhood groups often don't see eye-to-eye. See Baltimore ACORN

So, what's a moderate-low-income citizen of Baltimore to do about her/his residence in Baltimore's urban space?

If you are member of a household with income below $25,000 and you're in danger of being displaced, you have few options: get organized with other citizens in existing groups, or new ones, to break existing fragmentation, to demand alternatives, or break into one of the 15,000 vacant buildings and begin a squat. Other options are bleak.

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