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Mobtown Beat

Stretching Out

Veteran City Civic Group Champions Regional Issues

By Van Smith | Posted 4/17/2002

A lot has changed around Baltimore since Frances Morton started the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) 61 years ago this month. Back then, Morton led a crusade against bad housing and bad health spawned by bad public policies--what were then seen as problems peculiar to the city. Today, in an era when stemming Baltimore's steep decline has become the central challenge for the region's economy, such problems--and CPHA's approaches to solving them--have spread well beyond municipal borders.

In keeping with this shift, CPHA chose a Towson church rather than a city locale to gather together about 50 of its faithful on April 13 to gear up for the group's June 6 "Rally for the Region" at the Baltimore Convention Center. They hope to attract thousands to the periodic event (the last one was in October 2000) to support CPHA's agenda: improving older neighborhoods, mass transit, and drug treatment while fighting sprawl development.

CPHA's is but one of many regional voices that tries to address these familiar issues. But with its 60-plus employees and million-plus dollars in assets controlled by a well-connected 34-member board, the group is stocked with enough clout and resources to get lawmakers' attention. The powerful have long known to listen when CPHA speaks. (None other than the late urban-renewal luminary James Rouse, after losing a skirmish with CPHA over how best to reorganize city agencies, once noted its ability as a "political tactician.") But during election years such as this, politicos pay especially careful attention to what groups such as CPHA have to say because, presumably, they articulate what voters want.

"I think we all know why we are here," remarked the group's regional policy coordinator, Matthew Weinstein, before rattling off a litany of problems besetting the region: Baltimore City, home to most of the region's poor, continues to lose residents, leaving a vacant-housing glut inside the Beltway while, further out, farmland and forests are sacrificed to new houses. Despite the Glendening administration's 5-year-old "Smart Growth" effort, which aims to slow new development in outlying areas and nurture older communities near the urban core, Weinstein says, "we are stuck in the regional outward migration and sprawl."

Weinstein's comments on the mixed results of Smart Growth are backed up by two groups, 1,000 Friends of Maryland and the Baltimore Regional Partnership, that released studies last fall showing that many local jurisdictions are not in line with Smart Growth policies. The projected result: new-home building in the area over the next 20 years will consume 82,000 acres of undeveloped land.

"These patterns are costly," said 1,000 Friends executive director Dru Schmidt-Perkins as she pointed to "the map from hell" showing Baltimore City as the hole in the doughnut of future residential development in the region. Linking sprawl to transportation policies that she said favor road-building over mass transit. Schmidt-Perkins urged the region's leaders to "stop subsidizing the transportation system we're doing now, which makes it easier to live out there"--in exurbia--"and harder to live in here"--in or near the city.

Gene Peterson of the Transit Riders League echoed the call, leading the room in a call-and-response chant: "What do you want? Transit! When do you want it? Now!" Peterson said a third of a promised $750 million for mass-transit initiatives was raided to balance the state budget during the just-ended General Assembly session in Annapolis: "They robbed Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and we were the Peter they robbed."

Also taking a beating in this year's state budget was the Community Legacy Program, a fund that seeks to spruce up older neighborhoods by providing state funding for local initiatives that attract and keep residents and businesses. More than half of the $14 million earmarked by the governor for the program was slashed this year, Schmidt-Perkins says. CPHA wants the legislature to enact a permanent funding mechanism for the program.

Carlos Handy and Lynne Nemeth riled up the crowd to push for adequate drug-treatment funding, with each jurisdiction kicking in enough to cover the needs of its own residents. Nemeth pointed out that Howard County, the seventh-richest county in the nation, "also has drug users and alcoholics" but has no detox center or residential treatment program and only one methadone clinic. Substance abuse, she says, "cuts across income and ethnic lines, only it's more hidden in the suburbs." Handy, who said the region's addicted would fill both Oriole Park and Ravens Stadium, stated the group's drug-treatment goals: sufficient funding by 2006 to allow treatment within 48 hours for all who ask for it, family inclusion in treatment programs, and funding from all levels of government.

Lisa Akchin, chairperson of CPHA's committee on the region, closed the revival-style meeting by reminding the faithful that the organization has commanded politicians' ears in the past. "It's going to take many years of continuous work and investment to get things straight," she said. "We know that public officials are paying attention. We have a lot of credibility, and we want these issues to create some controversy." Most of all, she predicted, "we are going to show strength in numbers" at the June rally.

"This is not a one-time event," she exhorted. "This is a movement."

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