Baltimore County Confronts Suburban Decline

Baltimore County, Maryland, stands out as a national leader among local governments in confronting suburban decline (Outen 2005). Beginning in the mid-1990s, Baltimore County pursued a strategy to confront suburban decline. Using principles of smart growth, the county invested in its older suburbs rather than fund new growth. Baltimore County Executive “Dutch" Ruppersberger created the Office of Community Conservation (OCC) in 1995. During his eight years in office, the Ruppersberger administration focused on four strategic goals: education, crime, economic development, and community conservation. The idea was to build human capital throughout this maturing jurisdiction by investing in areas that were already built and had existing infrastructure. Thus, the OCC was charged with stabilizing and revitalizing the county's older neighborhoods and commercial areas in first-tier suburbs. The county's mandate to address this problem continued into the 2000s when the next county executive, James “Jim" Smith, following Ruppersberger, also made first-tier suburban renewal a platform issue for his administration. Following in the spirit of former County Executive Ruppersberger, Smith acknowledged the importance of revitalization: “The role of government is to protect the individual character of our neighborhoods and safeguard our resources and adjust to the changing development needs of our communities” (Smith 2003).

Thus, Baltimore County's (2000) OCC was charged “to preserve, stabilize, and enhance the human, physical, and economic conditions of the County's urban communities.” The OCC developed the Renaissance Development Initiative, a county wide revitalization plan. It sought to create a “renaissance" – or a new beginning – for Baltimore's aging suburban communities. When it began in 1995, the plan called for redevelopment projects that addressed a dilapidated housing stock and struggling commercial strips in first-tier suburbs. OCC used this map to guide its planning process and public investments. Funding for revitalization projects was directed exclusively to these areas. All of the county's first-tier suburbs were located within the conservation boundaries. The county's public mandate from the county executive allowed the OCC to focus its resources on community development in these first-tier suburbs.

The OCC carried out a variety of projects to address the problem of an aging housing stock and struggling commercial areas from 1995 to 2005. While the OCC focused attention on the western and eastern declining suburban neighborhoods, perhaps the case of Dundalk, Maryland, provides a nice illustration of the overall strategy for reengineering this declining community. This first-tier suburb, located on the eastern fringe of the central city, is one of the largest and oldest suburbs of Baltimore. Since 1970, Dundalk transitioned from a stable, working-class community to a place of dramatic decline. The home of various large industrial plants, including the behemoth Bethlehem Steel Corporation and General Motors, massive deindustrialization hit the local economy hard. Two out of three manufacturing jobs disappeared between 1970 and 2000. Plus, the poverty rate nearly doubled, from 5 percent to 10 percent; household income declined by 12 percent, falling from $45,000 to $39,000 in 2000 (in constant 1999 dollars). In consequence, the population declined by one-third; approximately 22,000 residents left. Dundalk became an aging community, and the number of residents over sixty-five tripled since 1970. By the end of the 1990s, Dundalk faced especially challenging issues. Dundalk's legacy became a familiar history for Baltimore's other first-tier suburbs (Hanlon and Vicino 2005). This historical account of decline suggested that Dundalk would continue to deteriorate unless something was done to thwart the decay of this suburb.

Ruppersberger and Smith thus took a special interest in the revitalization of Dundalk. Since 2002, the OCC has invested $70 million into Dundalk. These investments were aimed at demolishing rundown apartment complexes, renovating older housing units, and refurbishing the suburb's town square. At a press conference, Smith continued his pledge to give Dundalk a suburban makeover. On March 27, 2006, Smith announced the $5.5 million purchase of the York Park Apartments. The housing complex, located in the center of Dundalk, was decrepit and an eyesore. It became a magnet for criminal activity – there were more reported crimes in this area than in any other part of the county (Smith 2006). The county worked for several years to condemn the property for demolition, and plans to raze the property are imminent. Smith declared, “The wait is over... today Dundalk's renaissance shines like never before, and I promise you that as the York Park complex comes down, a wonderful new community will be bom” (1). Other projects included the renovation of the Dundalk Village Center; streetscaping of Dundalk Avenue; large-scale renovations of the Dundalk Village Apartments; and expanding the Heritage Trail to neighborhoods and various parks. Dundalk residents, including the suburb's community development corporation, the Dundalk Renaissance Corporation (DRC), rallied behind county planners and Smith for this milestone. Residents felt that the demolition of York Park would help Dundalk confront its challenges, including fighting crime and providing attractive, quality housing. DRC President Scott Holupka commented that “the creation of desirable housing options for families in the area is critical for Dundalk's continued renaissance. The county's commitment to changing the landscape along Yorkway is a major step forward in that effort” (Smith 2006, 1).

It is important to note that the process of redevelopment of Dundalk and other first-tier suburbs has not received homogeneous community support. In 2000, the Maryland General Assembly, with the endorsement of Baltimore County's OCC, Department of Planning, and Office of the County Executive, passed S.B. 509, which was a bill to permit the county to use eminent domain for economic development purposes. With this power, Ruppersberger and planners sought to condemn approximately 300 properties in the eastern first-tier suburbs for a new waterfront mixed-use development. Residents strongly opposed the county's attempts to seize private property for private redevelopment. On November 7, 2000, residents mobilized 70 percent of the electorate to vote to remove the county's right to use eminent domain for economic revitalization purposes.[1] In the aftermath of the community's opposition to S.B. 509, the OCC developed a participatory planning process for the redevelopment of its other first-tier suburbs. For instance, the county funded and gave logistical support for the development of the DRC. This community development corporation served as the suburb's community liaison and voice. A planning charrette process also provided additional community voice and feedback on projects. In consequence, subsequent efforts to revitalize the county's suburbs proceeded with the support of the community.

Although the revitalization of eastern suburban Baltimore was a slow and lengthy process, spanning over a decade, these projects offer evidence of progress. Baltimore County focused on the renewal of physical infrastructure rather than the development of human capital throughout its older suburbs. While revitalization occurred in the built environment, it remains to be seen whether these projects will raise the economic standing for residents of first-tier suburbs. Still, this approach was one of the most comprehensive local approaches to decline.

  • [1] The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently reaffirmed the right to use eminent domain for economic development in Kelo v. City' of New London 545 U.S. 469.
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