Patterson Park Place
The Patterson Park Community Development Corp. Helped Some East-Side Neighborhoods Go From Bust To Boom. What’s its Next Move?
“I had made a number of trips to Baltimore over a couple of years with the young adults I worked with,” she says. “We had worked in Reservoir Hill at Worker House and at Jonah House. And I just liked it here. They don’t call it Charm City for nothing. I was working from home at the time and decided I was going to move my home office.”
She bought a house on Luzerne Avenue, just steps from the park, for $66,000.
As Rademacher describes it, it was a trying time for her. She thought she would be able to continue her job once she moved, but her employer wasn’t keen on someone telecommuting from 1,700 miles away. “They said they at least wanted someone in the state of Texas,” Rademacher says. She went to the closing table unsure of how she would pay her new mortgage once her job was up.
It was a fairly uncertain time for her new neighborhood as well.
At the time, the blocks just north of the park were what some urban experts would call “transitional”: low- and moderate-income singles, couples, and families, both white and black, still lived there, but the neighborhood was fighting a loss of homeowners and ridiculously low property values. Massive, stately rowhouses facing the park routinely sold for far less than $100,000—some for less than $80,000—and the park itself was known to be a haven for drug dealing and prostitution.
Rademacher bought her house from the then relatively new nonprofit organization Patterson Park Community Development Corp. (PPCDC), which was founded in 1996 to reduce the creeping blight that was taking over neighborhoods bordering the north side of Patterson Park in East Baltimore. That year the PPCDC was operating on a budget of just $300,000 in income.
Six years later, both Rademacher and her neighborhood have come a long way. Today she is next in line to become executive director of Banner Neighborhoods, a nonprofit community-improvement organization, pending the retirement of longtime executive director John Huppert in January. The Patterson Park area, the fate of which people fretted and sweated throughout most of the past decade, has experienced a boom the likes of which few other neighborhoods in the city can match right now. Alley houses that sold for anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 in 2002 are now fetching $250,000 and up after renovations. (Rademacher sold the Luzerne Street rehab for $175,000 and in 2003 she moved into a new house just up the street that she also bought from the PPCDC.) The park itself is the centerpiece of a comprehensive master plan put together by the nonprofit Friends of Patterson Park that has improved the park’s amenities and security, making it more attractive to city residents, sports groups, and families with kids. Its once shady reputation is fading fast.
Streets that just a couple of years ago were marred by boarded-up buildings, trash, and drug activity are now humming with life. Plywood panels, which once were needed to keep junkies from turning vacant houses into shooting galleries, have been removed from many homes to make way for contractors. Where slumlords used to advertise cheap Section 8 rentals, Long and Foster and Coldwell Banker signs now advertise hot rehabbed properties selling for triple what they were worth just a few years ago.
Some of the credit for the area’s revitalization can be credited to the massive real estate boom of 2004 and ’05, fueled by a drop in mortgage interest rates, that inflated the price of property all around the Baltimore region. But the surge in property values in the neighborhood on the north side of the park is a little different. It didn’t happen spontaneously or organically, or overnight. Rather, it was sparked in the early 1990s by a group of concerned citizens living around the park, maintained by the work and dedication of a series of nonprofit groups, and directed and overseen by an organization—the Patterson Park Community Development Corp.—that has evolved from a small grass-roots entity with hardly any money or staff into a successful nonprofit development organization. Founded in 1996 by executive director Ed Rutkowski with just $40,000 in grant money from the Abell Foundation, the PPCDC now owns 235 properties in the Patterson Park area, has a staff of 25 people, and is selling architect-designed high-end rehabs on alley streets just up from the park for $400,000 a pop.
The organization, which started out in Rutkowski’s dining room as a last-ditch effort to rescue a dying neighborhood, has surpassed what most people thought was possible. In its early years, the PPCDC aggressively intervened in the real estate around the park, buying up abandoned houses and neglected properties to keep them out of the hands of people who didn’t have the community’s best interests in mind. Over the years it has acquired, rehabbed, and resold hundreds of properties and pumped new life into ailing neighborhoods. Though the PPCDC is not the only investor buying and selling property in Patterson Park, it is the area’s quiet power player—it owns millions of dollars worth of properties, doles out modest grants to other small neighborhood organizations operating within its boundaries, and is poised to embark on a project to create a mixed-use retail square along Fayette Street.
It has been a remarkable couple of years for the organization and for the community, both of which are now prepared to explore a future beyond just staying afloat.
The gray-haired Rutkowski is thoughtful, mulling his answers to questions, but when the answers arrive, they’re straightforward and plain-spoken. He’s a native of East Baltimore whose family left their home on Biddle Street, just above Monument, to move to Highlandtown in 1955 because they were concerned about what they perceived to be a decline in the neighborhood. He walks the streets around Patterson Park, on some of which the PPCDC has bought and is now renovating multiple houses, pointing out corners that were once notorious for open-air drug dealing and noting which blocks were plagued by slumlords and boarded-up eyesores. Today those blocks and corners are buzzing with the hum of carpenters’ saws, as house after house is being gutted and renovated by either the PPCDC or one of the other developers now buying up property in the area.
“What we did, and what this was about, was to take a place where good people moved in and watched their neighborhood crumble and give people the opportunity to live a decent life and not be surrounded by drug dealers,” he says.
The PPCDC was not the first organization to attempt that task. In 1974, a nonprofit development group called Neighborhood Housing Services opened in Baltimore, and its first office was in the Patterson Park area. The organization encouraged banks, real-estate agents, and private foundations to work together to provide incentives for people to buy homes in the neighborhoods of East Baltimore, including those surrounding Patterson Park. The program managed to attract numerous new homeowners to its targeted areas. In a November 1995 Sun story about Patterson Park, the organization was credited with increasing home ownership in the Patterson Park area from 30 percent to 70 percent.
Rutkowski himself moved back to the old neighborhood in 1986, purchasing a three-story rowhouse on East Baltimore Street. (Citing back troubles, Rutkowski moved into an easier-to-maintain condominium in Canton seven years ago.) At the time, the neighborhood was a mix of low- and middle-income residents, black and white alike, many of whom had been attracted to the inexpensive housing options and financing assistance from Neighborhood Housing Services. The same year Rutkowski moved in, Neighborhood Housing Services, satisfied with what it had accomplished around Patterson Park, shifted its focus to assist other troubled neighborhoods in the city. Neither the organization, nor the new homeowners who had bought into the Patterson Park neighborhoods, anticipated that a government-funded housing program would destroy the little bit of stability brought to the area in just a few years.
In the late ’80s, the number of federally subsidized Section 8 housing certificates for low-income renters issued in Baltimore City was increasing, and residents north of the park saw a proliferation of renters from the Section 8 program moving into their neighborhoods. While Section 8 renters themselves are not necessarily a problem, the absentee landlords who sometimes take advantage of the program, which pays a portion of a poor individual’s rent directly to the landlord, often are. The properties are not kept up, and as long as the Section 8 program keeps sending the landlords rent money, there is no incentive to evict disruptive tenants. In order to qualify for the program, properties have to pass an annual inspection, but by the early 1990s each of the city’s inspectors was responsible for hundreds of Section 8 units. When the city began to demolish its massive high-rise public-housing projects in the 1990s, it dislocated even more low-income individuals who had to find cheap places to live. Many of the former project dwellers received Section 8 vouchers and settled around Patterson Park, where the stock of cheap housing encouraged landlords to buy up properties and turn them into cheap rentals.
“In 1985, everybody thought this neighborhood was finished,” Rutkowski recalls. Despite concerned citizens’ best attempts to keep on top of things, the alleys were strewn with trash and the growing number of vacant houses was an increasing eyesore. People didn’t think things could get much worse, but they did. “Ten years [later], it was a wreck,” he says. What few businesses were operating in the neighborhood began to shut down. The dry cleaner closed, the bakery closed; liquor stores, he says, were the only thriving businesses.
Rutkowski, a computer analyst who worked for United Parcel Service, was concerned about the alarming rate of deterioration around him. He was involved with the Baltimore-Linwood Association (the Patterson Park Neighborhood Association’s predecessor), and eventually took the helm as its president. By 1992, he quit his job with UPS to devote himself full-time to keeping his neighborhood—and others surrounding it—from falling into the abyss of urban blight.
He and another East Baltimore community activist, Glenn Ross from the McElderry Park neighborhood just north of Fayette Street, formed the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative, an organization of neighborhood activists determined to bring the area’s community and civic associations together to fight their neighborhoods’ ruin. The organization worked with other East Baltimore groups to obtain small grants to market the neighborhoods, and in May 1995 it presented a model townhome to the community to show off to real-estate agents and potential future homeowners.
“Glenn was invaluable, he showed me the ropes,” Rutkowski says. “I didn’t know anything about how black Baltimore worked, or black East Baltimore. I grew up in Highlandtown, but that was a white neighborhood, so this was completely alien to me. Hour after hour, and all these walks through the neighborhoods with Glenn, I learned what was real and what wasn’t. I learned how drug dealers worked. I also learned that what we had here was an awful lot of black people very concerned about their neighborhoods.”
It soon became clear to Rutkowski that more drastic action than marketing and activism was needed to really turn things around, so he formed the East Fayette Street Community Development Corp. in June 1996. Unlike the Neighborhoods Initiative, the new nonprofit corporation had the power to actually purchase and own property. (The East Fayette Street Community Development Corp. later became known as the Patterson Park Community Development Corp.)
The organization’s original strategy, Rutkowski says, was a program of “intervention buying.” It scarfed up as many vacant and neglected properties as it could, simply to get them off the market and out of the hands of slumlords, absentee owners, and unsavory investors. Its first year the organization bought about 10 houses, but over the past nine it has managed to buy up 400 houses, some of which have been rehabbed and sold, others of which are managed by the organization as rental properties, and others which remain vacant until the organization develops or sells them. In some particularly destitute areas, the PPCDC bought up multiple rundown houses on a block, therefore taking control of the street’s destiny.
It was a significant risk for the fledgling organization, which at the time was operating purely on grant money, but Rutkowski believed it had to be done. As noted in the PPCDC’s 1998 book The Urban Transition Zone: A Place Worth a Fight, which he co-wrote with former PPCDC board member Marcus Pollock, vacant, neglected, and undervalued houses are like tumors in a healthy neighborhood: “Once a decision to save a viable neighborhood has been made, every vacant house, and every house that might fall into the hands of a bottom-fishing absentee investor, must find its way into responsible hands.”
The PPCDC’s plans got off to a slow start. Even after the organization had started rehabbing properties for resale at fair-market prices, people were simply not interested in living in the neighborhoods north of the park.
“When we first started,” Rutkowski recalls, “people would call us, and if you said the house was north of Eastern Avenue, they would hang up!”
Rutkowski says that the only people who were eager to buy from his fledgling organization were “poor blacks,” but he felt that a neighborhood could not be rebuilt if it didn’t attract a wider array of buyers. He believed that a neighborhood needed to balance itself out, both racially and economically, to become viable. “People just wouldn’t have moved here if they thought the neighborhood was poor and black,” he says.
So the organization began working with nonprofit foundations to offer incentives to lure people of various backgrounds and incomes. The Abell Foundation helped the PPCDC by funding a program that offered homebuyers nine years’ worth of free tuition to St. Elizabeth’s, a now-shuttered private school on East Fairmount Avenue (today, the Patterson Park Community Charter School operates in the St. Elizabeth’s campus). Abell also funded a guarantee program promising homeowners that the value of properties in the Patterson Park area would not decrease—if the buyers decided to sell their home and could not retrieve the price they paid for it, Abell would pay the difference.
Slowly, the organization began to have some success, and each year that it was in operation it managed to fetch slightly higher prices for the houses it sold. The upside was that a new kind of buyer—white, upwardly mobile—was beginning to move into the area; the downside was that some of the neighborhood’s older families, many of them black and of modest income, were bought out. It was an unfortunate side effect of growing prosperity, but one that Rutkowski thinks could not have been avoided if the neighborhood was to survive.
“We were faced with a wave of disinvestment that was swallowing up everything in its path,” he says. “We had to not only make things better, but we had to stop the slide first. . . . What we believed, what we still believe, is that raising property values is a good thing, and by bringing in more well-to-do people we were increasing the diversity of the population. This was a poor neighborhood.”
One of the surest signs that Patterson Park has changed is the Patterson Park Community Charter School, which opened in September with the help of several community organizations, including the PPCDC. Though the neighborhood is still socially, economically, and racially diverse, it has started to see many more young singles and professionals, many white, buy homes in recent years. And unlike times past, they are sticking around even after they have children.
“The [public] schools [in the area] were overcrowded, and people were leaving the neighborhood almost as soon as they found out they were pregnant,” says Stephanie Simms, former chair of the charter school. But now that a group of young families with children banded together to charter a school, and now parents in the neighborhood have some choice of where their children are educated. The school, which is currently kindergarten through fourth grade, has 300 students, mostly from six neighborhoods surrounding the park. In 2006, Rutkowski says, a private Montessori school is planning to open, as well, which will offer even more educational opportunity in the area.
Another sign of Patterson Park’s increasing prosperity and stability is the fact that Rutkowski and others are trying to jump-start some retail and restaurant business. Some time early next year, a new bar/restaurant called Parkside is expected to open at the corner of Baltimore and Linwood streets in the former Block’s Pharmacy building. The PPCDC purchased the building to keep it from turning into another corner liquor store, Rutkowski says, and is leasing the downstairs to local restaurateurs Gary and Jennifer LeFrance; the upstairs is being renovated into new offices for the PPCDC itself. The PPCDC is also underway on an ambitious new project to renovate Library Square, a triangle of land between Fayette and Orleans streets straddling the northern boundary of the organization’s coverage area, into a thriving retail area for the community.
But perhaps the biggest indicator of the area’s—and the organization’s—success is the increasing price of housing north of the park.
In 1997, the average sale price of a house sold by the PPCDC hovered around $50,000. That average remained between $50,000 and $100,000 until 2002, when the average jumped to just over the $100,000 mark. In 2004, the average selling price of one of the organization’s homes was well over $150,000, and in 2005 the projected average is nearing $250,000.
Dahlia Kaminsky, the PPCDC’s marketing director, says they are calling the newest houses that the organization is working on the “Palaces on Port Street.” North Port Street, a narrow alley street that was once lined with ragtag two-story rowhouses, is being remodeled by the organization into a series of “double wides”—that is, two side-by-side rowhouses turned into one extra-large unit. Each 2,000-square-foot home is architect-designed and features high-end stainless-steel appliances, granite or Corian countertops, new hardwood floors, whirlpool baths, patios, and privacy fencing. Some have parking pads and gas fireplaces; others are designed with soaring cathedral ceilings and exposed brick walls. Right now, the organization has two of these available for $419,000 and $439,000 each. They are being marketed by the PPCDC as “Patterson Park’s newest and most sophisticated product.” So far, the organization has sold one to a family looking to move from a typical vertical-style rowhouse to one with more horizontal space, and Kaminsky expects that the others will attract similar buyers.
Clearly, Kaminsky is excited about the new project, but she also appreciates the fact that just a few years ago that price could have purchased half the houses on the block.
“I came on here three and a half years ago, and then we barely even had a web site,” she says. “We sold our first houses for $50,000. Now we have these houses on Port for $400,000.”
When the PPCDC first started renovating homes, Rutkowski says the rehabs were much more modest—laminate countertops and average appliances. But as the organization has sold more homes at ever-increasing prices, it has begun to generate income from them. In 2004, the organization reported $5,887,418 in revenue from its programs, which include the house sales, and some of that money is being used to improve the value of the products it offers to buyers.
These days the organization’s entry-level home, for example, is what Kaminsky calls a “funky urban hipster pad.” Aimed at single buyers, these are also architect-designed and feature whirlpool baths and spendy appliances. These loft-style rehabs are now selling for $250,000 and up. Kaminsky says the PPCDC did a series of them on North Decker Street, and “they all went really quickly.” Right now it has two available on Belnord Street for $260,000 apiece.
It’s not just the PPCDC that’s fetching high prices for these homes, either. Long and Foster real estate advertises its Patterson Park homes “starting in the low $200s,” and Rademacher says the man who bought her Luzerne Street house in 2003 for $175,000 recently sold it for $299,000. Shells can still be bought for less than $100,000, but rehab costs on the homes, many of which are in need of a lot of TLC, brings the total cost to a buyer back up toward $200,000.
Rutkowski says he’s still not totally sure what the market for these houses—the majority of which are no longer affordable for young single workers or middle-income families—is.
It’s no longer the traditional blue-collar East Baltimore family, many of which are slowly disappearing from booming neighborhoods across the city, pushed out by higher taxes, higher rents, and higher housing prices in general. In Patterson Park, the recent prosperity has been a blessing for some older residents in the neighborhood, but it’s been a burden for others.
“If you were poor and black and owned your own home, it was great,” Rutkowski says, noting that people who were stuck with houses in a neighborhood they no longer wanted to live in (or homes they could not afford to rehab) could sell them to the PPCDC or other investors for a decent amount of money. “But if you were a tenant, you got pushed out.” Many of the area’s former renters have moved several blocks north of the park-oriented neighborhoods, into McElderry Park, Ellwood Park, and other neighborhoods along the Monument Street corridor.
Rutkowski says the PPCDC still maintains 130 rental units in its area of focus, most of which he calls “affordable,” though he points out that the organization does not accept Section 8 renters. “The neighborhood would kill us,” he laughs. “Section 8 has a bad reputation around here, though it has vastly improved.
“I think people can still buy livable houses fairly inexpensively here,” he continues, though the cheapest rehab being offered from the PPCDC itself right now is in the $200s. “And we considered doing a cheaper version of what we do now. . . . But then you’d be affecting the real-estate market.”
Jolyn Rademacher says she is energized about the improvements being made to the area and proudly shows off all the various beautification programs that the PPCDC and Banner Neighborhoods have helped implement over the past five years: planters and new porch lights in front of some houses, murals and public artwork created by neighborhood kids, the greening and gating of alleys that were once littered with old boxes, bottles, and plastic bags. But she acknowledges that it has been difficult watching some of her neighbors get priced out of their homes.
“Because of changes with housing prices, the people who were my neighbors when I first moved here are now up in the 500 and 600 blocks, farther north,” she says. “I think that’s kind of sad, because their families can’t afford to live here anymore.”
Rademacher and outgoing Banner Neighborhoods executive director John Huppert have also noticed that more and more of the kids and families they work with are coming from neighborhoods closer to Monument Street and farther from Patterson Park.
Huppert recalls that a few years ago there was a block of North Streeper Street right near the park that was having problems with neighborhood kids who had nothing better to do than hang out in the street, play ball, and aggravate neighbors. Banner Neighborhoods started a football program for the kids to give them something
constructive to do and to keep them out
“Five years ago, there were probably about 30 kids on that block,” Huppert says. “Now the only kids I notice living on that street are infants. New people are moving in, and many of them are single or young professionals.”
Though all the community groups contacted for this story note that the PPCDC has played a huge role in the positive changes in the Patterson Park area, Rutkowski refuses to take all the credit. He says that a combination of factors have really led to the current boom, noting specifically the spike in housing prices, the longtime undervaluing of the city’s housing stock, and the fact that the area has four strong nonprofit organizations with long-term executive directors—the PPCDC, Banner Neighborhoods, the Creative Alliance, and Friends of Patterson Park—looking out for its best interests.
“Reclaiming lost territory, blighted territory, is very, very difficult,” he says. “But we’ve had a lot of support and a lot of luck. A lot of things went right for us, and there’s been a tremendous amount of support from bankers, foundations, politicians. There’s something about this part of East Baltimore that people didn’t want to see it decline.”
Going forward, he says, should his organization increase its stake in the city’s east-side neighborhoods, the PPCDC will have to explore creating affordable housing. When the PPCDC was first founded, he says, the organization was focused on doing whatever it had to do to save the neighborhood. Now, he says, the organization and the neighborhood have grown enough that the PPCDC can “be more thoughtful” about how it shapes housing opportunities in its target areas.
“I don’t regret what we did, because the choice was to have a deteriorating neighborhood and to continue to see it get worse,” Rutkowski says. “Going forward, if we were to go to a neighborhood like Glenn Ross’ neighborhood, we’d like to not see the poor get pushed out.”
The PPCDC area, with its double-rowhouse facades and parking pads, is a very different place than where Glenn Ross lives, just a few blocks north of Fayette Street. On the drive to Ross’ house, quiet, orderly streets of rehabbed houses give way to neglected homes, trash-strewn alleys, and boisterous corners where kids hang out. Well-kept rowhouses with original cornices, marble stoops, and pretty leaded-glass windows sit adjacent to forgotten houses with plywood-barricaded windows. Where Patterson Park’s neighborhoods are working on beautifying alleyways and creating high-end rehabs to lure suburban expatriates back to the city, Ross’ neighborhood is still just trying to get by. From his front stoop, you can see the glow of a blue CitiWatch camera—installed by the city in high-crime and drug areas to deter illicit street activity—blinking along Monument Street.
For years Ross, former president of the McElderry Park Neighborhood Association, has fought for a better quality of life in this predominantly African-American, low-income community, which is directly north of Patterson Park and just southeast of the Johns Hopkins’ East Baltimore Biotech Park project—two areas whose development is putting a crunch on McElderry Park. Ross says he’s seen an influx of displaced residents and drug activity in the area as a result of recent east-side revitalization. His neighborhood doesn’t have a community development organization like PPCDC working exclusively on its behalf; instead, its efforts to revive—or just survive—have sprung from the community with whatever help it can get from charitable organizations, foundations, politicians, and regional development interests. Though he’s still optimistic about the future of McElderry Park, Ross has developed a cynical view of how development interests treat communities like his.
“The problem with development in the neighborhoods is that it’s normally not organized, and they get co-opted by everybody else,” Ross says. “People who try to co-opt things try to use us as leaders to stand there as if we are going along with it. And they expect us not to say anything.”
But Ross has never been one not to say something. Over the years he’s worked with the PPCDC, the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, East Baltimore Development Inc., Hopkins, and other groups with substantial stakes in East Baltimore redevelopment, and he has stories about how each one has made overtures to him and other neighborhood leaders, only to “use the African-American communities” to get what they needed in the form of grants and development funds. “In grant proposals you include all of our social ills to get the grant money, then spend it somewhere else,” he says.
For example, he notes that in the construction of the new Johns Hopkins Biotech Park, proponents of the project used the area’s blight and problems as an excuse to demolish almost an entire neighborhood. In the process, residents of the area were forced out, many of whom will not be able to afford to return to their old neighborhood once it is revitalized (“A Bitter Pill,” Nov. 12, 2003). Neighborhoods that are absorbing the displaced residents—and displaced social ills that are being pushed out as well—receive little more than hope that the benefits from nearby development projects will trickle down to them.
Development interests have their own version of the new East Baltimore, Ross says, and to realize it, “they all want these neighborhoods to die.”
Even the PPCDC and Rutkowski disappointed Ross in its early years. In the 1980s and early ’90s, when all the neighborhoods north of the park were struggling and facing similar problems, Ross worked closely with Rutkowski and other east-side stakeholders to find common solutions to the Section 8 problem, the drug problem, the homeownership problem. But once the PPCDC came together, Rutkowski honed his focus, choosing to work with neighborhoods closer to the park. Ross’ neighborhood was not one of them.
“Ed and I were the ones that put together the Patterson Park Neighborhoods Initiative,” Ross says. “And for that, the north boundary was Monument Street. A couple of years later, Ed founded the [community development corporation], and the north boundary was not Monument Street, it was Fayette Street. I asked him why did he do that. And he said he didn’t think this part of the neighborhood was savable.”
Rutkowski says he thought McElderry Park was savable then, and is savable now, but he says, it just wasn’t prudent for his newly founded organization to take on too many challenges at once. So he says he selected neighborhoods around the park that he felt were strongest.
“The thing is, you’ve gotta have some strength,” Rutkowski says. “You have to say, ‘Here’s where on one side, more or less, you’ve got some strength to build from.’”
The growing strength of the PPCDC neighborhoods, and the development activity around Fells Point and Johns Hopkins Hospital, have made some of the weaknesses of the surrounding areas worse. Ross says he’s seen many lower-income folks pushed into the already poverty-stricken neighborhoods of East Baltimore. It’s created some culture clashing in the community, he says, as Native American and Latino populations displaced from Upper Fells Point are suddenly finding themselves living in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Ross says he is concerned that Latinos, in particular, are being taken advantage of by slumlords in the area who are willing to cheaply house as many people as possible in tiny apartments.
Displaced drug activity is migrating in and around McElderry Park, too, and Ross warns that it won’t stop there—more than likely, he says, it will shift and migrate to other areas in the northeast part of the city.
Unless communities, especially African-American communities like his, can find ways to strengthen themselves, Ross says, they will continue to be plagued by crime and grime. But how does one revive a fading neighborhood without pricing out many of the low-income African-American people who live there? Economic-development interests, such as Hopkins and East Baltimore Development Inc., are planning economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the areas they are developing, but such efforts likely won’t be enough to absorb the need.
According to an August study by the Urban Institute based on 2000 U.S. Census numbers, 52,000 low-income families in the city need affordable housing, however, there are only about 42,000 affordable rental units available in Baltimore—nearly a third of which the Urban Institute says are substandard. In addition, there are some 16,000 low-income people in Baltimore on affordable-housing waiting lists. The 1,200 units of mixed-income housing being promised as part of the biotech park project will hardly make a dent in that number.
McElderry Park is already lacking in resources, and it’s also failing to attract the kind of people it needs: middle-income homebuyers to stabilize the neighborhood. Ross wants to return basic services, such as a dry cleaner or a launderette or a grocery store, to the community and hopefully attract a stable homeownership base in the process. But he doesn’t want to create a neighborhood designed by and for developers—he wants it to be designed to meet the needs of its current population.
“We don’t want no $200,000, $300,000 condos here,” he says. “Some neighbors think this is a good thing. They think, I hope they do raise the property values, I hope I can sell my house. But what about Ms. Smith across the street? She can’t go nowhere. This is what the developers do to us, they divide us. Once they divide us, they can come on in and take over.”
A year and a half ago, Ross almost lost his house to foreclosure after unwittingly getting involved in a predatory loan with a bank (“On the Outs,” Mobtown Beat, Oct. 29, 2003). He says that Rutkowski offered to help him find a new house in the PPCDC area, but he turned the offer down because he wasn’t willing to let the notion of redeveloping McElderry Park go. Interestingly, Ross says he thinks the best way to realize that may be to join forces with the PPCDC, which originally excluded McElderry Park.
“I shared this idea with Ed, and he said he thinks it’s a good idea,” Ross says. Right now, the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition is the administrator of a grant to help the McElderry Park Neighborhood Association redevelop the area, but after that another organization could come in and work on the project in partnership with the community.
“When I talk to people at meetings about this, they say, ‘Glenn, you said don’t talk to Ed Rutkowski about this stuff,’” Ross says. “I say to them, ‘I didn’t say don’t talk to him—I said don’t invite him to control it.’”
It appears that the PPCDC is headed straight for that part of East Baltimore anyway. The organization has expanded its property holdings well north of the park, right up to Fayette Street, where its newest project will be based. In October, the organization received a $500,000 federal grant thanks to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) to help buy up commercial and residential property around Library Square, which it will manage as a retail mall.
“Ten years ago when we talked about Patterson Park, we grimaced,” Mikulski said in an e-mail statement about the project. “I made an investment in the PPCDC because I knew they would make a significant investment in the community.”
The goal is for the PPCDC to own the properties and control the kinds of businesses that open on the square. Rutkowski envisions basic amenities for the neighborhood, like coffee shops, dry cleaning, perhaps a small neighborhood restaurant. He says he has his own idea of what the area could look like, though he’s adamant that it will ultimately be up to the community to decide what it wants there.
“I think that the center of this project, at least what I picture, is this gorgeous green space with flowers,” Rutkowski says, describing how he thinks the square could look when the project is complete. “Maybe some benches in the park, without people sleeping or drinking on them. Gorgeous rowhouses surround it, street lighting that’s really attractive so people won’t be afraid to be there after dark.”
Right now there’s not much on the square—it’s home to a branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, two Latino convenience stores, and a tired-looking grocery that advertises check cashing and money orders on a yellow banner out front. The other storefronts—probably about 10 of them—are vacant.
It’ll be a multimillion dollar project, a pretty big risk, and an ambitious undertaking, but like the intervention buying that the PPCDC did in its early years, it’s a risk Rutkowski thinks needs to be taken to bring Patterson Park to the next level of renewal.
“The danger for us, and I think it’s a very real danger, is if this doesn’t work it can be a real drain [on the PPCDC],” he says. “The money from Senator Mikulski is money to fall back on.”
The problem is that no matter how many houses the PPCDC buys up and how many grand plans it has it still has to answer to the bank. And right now the organization puts as much money back into the community as it makes.
According to forms filed with the IRS, the PPCDC took in nearly $7 million in revenue and controlled $13 million in assets in fiscal year 2004. However, it also spent more than $7 million buying, rehabbing, and marketing its houses, implementing beautification projects, paying its employees, and doling out money to help smaller neighborhood organizations accomplish their goals.
Despite the amount of money it spends benefiting the community, its 2004 financials reveal that it received no government contributions from the city, state, or federal government last year. All of its income came in the form of direct public support (donations) and revenues generated through its programs and services, such as house sales.
So, although on paper the PPCDC is a $13 million organization, its debt practically matches its assets.
“We’re really strapped for financing right now,” Rutkowski says. “We owe the banks $13 million. This is a really volatile business, and we’ve had some really tough years.”
On Nov. 30, Rutkowski met with Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. “Jay” Brodie to discuss Library Square, but as of press time Rutkowski was not sure what kind of role the city might play in the project. “There really isn’t much to say,” he says. “Jay is extremely interested in helping . . . but I think what we’ll do is figure out what we want to ask for and then talk to them again.”
But even if the city does not choose to jump in on the project, the PPCDC will go forward with it, just as it has with all of its projects in the past. Working in the community and for the community almost seems like a compulsion for Rutkowski, who says he sometimes gets nostalgic for the days when a group of neighbors gathered in his dining room to talk about what they could do to save the neighborhood.
When asked when the organization will have accomplished its goals, Rutkowski doesn’t answer like a successful developer who’s made a huge impact on a once-dilapidated neighborhood. Instead, he answers like a community activist who’s never going to be satisfied to sit back and let someone else worry about the future.
“I watch our progress and I see that it’s still very difficult,” he says. “There are still a few blocks where not much has happened, and if you look across Orleans Street, there is still a lot that could be done. . . . If [the real-estate market] slows, we have to stay competitive. We have to offer people things they can’t get anywhere else. We have to keep moving.”
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812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201