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Questioning Authority

Park Heights Residents Worry Yet Another Revitalization Plan Will Do Little, If Anything, To Help Community

Frank Klein
FOOL ME ONCE...: Jean Yarborough awaits the outcome of another plan to revitalize Park Heights.

By Chris Landers | Posted 9/27/2006

When Jean Yarborough was a girl, she remembers piling into her father's old Buick for a Sunday drive to Park Heights.

"One of the pleasures of my life was driving up into this area to see the trees and the grass," says Yarborough, now 78. She grew up and moved away, ending up in Columbia, but in 1983 she moved back to the city, back to the neighborhood that enchanted her as a girl.

"When I came into Park Heights, my vision of Park Heights was still the grand lady," she says. "Only to find that the grand lady had become the scullery maid."

Park Heights has certainly seen better days. Boarded-up houses dot the streets, the median household income is almost $7,000 less than in the rest of the city, and only a third of Park Heights residents have any education beyond high school. The deterioration of the neighborhood hasn't gone unnoticed at City Hall. Over the years, Park Heights has been a testing ground for more programs, efforts, and plans than residents care to remember. Yarborough says she's seen at least 14 since she moved to her home on Palmer Avenue. The planners have moved on, but the blight remains.

"After reading a million plans and being involved in a million plans and listening to what was going to happen--it just never occurred," she says. "People heard some things and ignored others, and I have watched this community right here where I live just deteriorate. It broke my heart, because I'm still dreaming that this is going to change."

Change is on the horizon, thanks to an ambitious city plan released earlier this year. The Park Heights master plan covers some 1,500 acres and would affect some 30,000 residents in an area bounded by Druid Park Drive, Wabash Avenue, Greenspring Avenue, and Northern Parkway. The plan would add a large historic-preservation area, two commercial centers, and redevelopment areas throughout the neighborhood. It would also level about 75 acres in the heart of the neighborhood, including Yarborough's brick duplex on Palmer Avenue. The city hasn't made a secret of its plans. It lists the homes to be demolished by address in a publication on its web site and has held a series of meetings about them. But there has been no official notification to the residents and owners, according to city planning director Otis Rolley III.

The city, meanwhile, has been acquiring properties in the area to be demolished through tax-sale foreclosures and "quick take" condemnations on blocks where more than 70 percent of the houses are vacant. Eventually, Rolley says, the city will pursue eminent domain for the rest. In the meantime, vacant city-owned houses will be boarded up.

Kevia Elliott has lived in Park Heights for pretty much all of his 46 years. Elliott is the pastor of the Lord's Church on Park Heights Avenue. He described the master plan as "a shadow over the land."

"There are some benefits that I see as the master plan has been drawn, but overall I think the master plan seeks to change Park Heights vs. to come in and care for Park Heights, and that's a big difference for me," Elliott says. "Realistically, we've heard a whole lot of things. . . . It may not even happen. But as it's drawn up, as it's written, I don't think it has the care and the consideration and the compassion for the people of this community who really need to be helped."

The plan is being overseen by the Pimlico Community Development Authority, headed by planning director Rolley. The authority is composed of 10 stakeholders and community members, including Yarborough. The relationship between the board and the community has been troubled since it was formed last year, created by a bill that passed the state legislature unanimously.

In the same bill that created the authority, it was granted control over a fund established in the 1970s--some $500,000 from the taxes paid by Park Heights' largest resident, Pimlico Race Course--that had previously gone to community groups and was used for a jobs program for area youth and to rehab houses.

Community leaders, including Yarborough's friend Barbara Scott, say no one asked them about giving the authority control over the fund that the community had long overseen, or mentioned it until the bill had already passed. A meeting in Park Heights last September saw community members upset with the Baltimore delegation to the statehouse and delegates scrambling to get out of the way.

The primary sponsor of the bill was Del. Salima Siler Marriott (D-40th District), who caught the brunt of the dissatisfaction. Marriott ran this year to be the Democratic candidate for state Senate from the area and lost. Mark Hughes, a Park Heights resident and the neighborhood's organizer at the Community Law Center, says that while he agreed with the bill's purpose, the way the issue was handled is "ultimately going to be why Del. Marriott did not become a senator. There were other things, but she really shot herself in the foot."

Hughes, who ran and lost this fall for state delegate in the same district as Marriott, sees the same potential for failure in the master plan.

"I commend the mayor," he says. "This is more than any effort before. This is not just talk, there are going to be some changes. The question just becomes how are they handling this process. Are they handling it in a way that people are being informed, or is it just being done and then people find out about it at the last minute? And the changes are made behind the scenes. People are concerned about that."

At a forum at Lord's Church during the run-up to the primary election, about a dozen candidates showed up to stump for Park Heights votes. As the question period wound to a close, Barbara Scott stood at the microphone and took the officials to task:

"You are our representatives who should be concerned about what's going on in Park Heights, and you have no idea that the city has a list of some 230 homes they are planning to demolish and nobody's been notified. Nobody's received a letter that says, `I plan to demolish your house.' You say $20 million has gone into this authority and yet you took our summer jobs away from the kids?" The crowd nodded in agreement as she wound down. "I say shame on you. Shame on you."

Marriott didn't get a chance to respond until afterward, as Pastor Elliott motioned people into the multipurpose room of the church.

"It's not a perfect plan, but they didn't have anything," Marriott says. "That's the point. . . . I have not heard any concerns."

The area to be demolished, she says, is "primarily a decaying area. All those apartments are coming out. They were nothing but drug dens. You know--they say they want a revitalized community. You can not have a revitalized community with the decay that currently exists."

Scott says she was asked to join the authority but turned the offer down: "It's an authority without any authority."

Yarborough says the group has yet to vote on anything, instead receiving recommendations from Rolley.

Rolley says the authority will decide things--how the racetrack money is spent and which bid wins a current $2 million human services grant for the area. The grant requires matching funds from the bidder, leaving most Park Heights community groups ineligible, but a future grant, specifically from the racetrack fund, will be smaller, without the matching-fund requirement.

According to figures provided by the city Planning Department, the racetrack fund will break down this way: the lion's share, $369,000, will go to salaries for six new jobs in the city Housing Department to work on the Park Heights plan. This year, $180,000 was rolled into the city's Youthworks program, which provided 150 jobs in the neighborhood.

Rolley says that unlike previous plans this one is here to stay.

"One way to judge the plan is the proof is in the pudding," he says. "Having more than $20 million for fiscal '07 is more than just lip service. . . . I think we got it right this time."

Asked whether a new city administration could mean a new plan for the area, as has happened in the past, Rolley says that "it changes if this is the administration's plan. It doesn't change if it's the community's plan. The people of Park Heights have to keep the pressure on. Ten years from now Park Heights is going to be very different. Not different because the people are different, but because the people there are going to be prouder."

Yarborough says she plans to stay in Park Heights, even if she isn't sure exactly where, but she says she's tired.

"It kind of kills your motivation," she says. "I thought we were going to do something really good in Park Heights, but I don't see it. I don't see it.

"I'm hoping that it happens," she continues. "I'm hoping that I live to see it. I said to my neighbors, `You know they're going to tear these houses down?' You know what their reaction was? They said, `Don't even worry about it; they're not going to tear these houses down.' Because they've been told 14 other times that something was going to happen in Park Heights and nothing happens."

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