Tuesday, January 21, 2014

From School Development to Neighborhood Development

As every reader of RHIC material knows by now, following a multi-year grassroots campaign, the Maryland General Assembly approved $1.2 billion for city school construction.  It’s an historic opportunity for Baltimore.  It’s new school facilities, but it’s much more than that.  It’s potentially the biggest jobs program the city has seen in decades.  It’s a huge investment in neighborhoods and a singular opportunity for strategic, holistic, development in communities- if we are able to seize this historic opportunity.

Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC) and Neighborhood Design Center (NDC) are partnering over several months in 2014 to create a comprehensive community plan that would help guide private and public investment in Reservoir Hill – a strategic investment strategy. To do so, we need the deep and broad engagement of the Reservoir Hill community, and a wide range of partners.

Since 2010 we have been working to foster some significant development projects that could mean very positive changes in the community.   In the past year we reached an important point:
  • The redevelopment of John Eager Howard Elementary School has many unanswered questions, but the construction of a new facility will commence in 2015, the partnership of RHIC and Child First provides stable staff and organizing resources, and a team of 12 people have been meeting every other week to guide the community's involvement and put together a model of community engagement.   
  • From the successful sale of vacant, foreclosed houses through the NSP-2 program, Healthy Neighborhoods (HNI) has sufficient funds to begin redevelopment of vacant houses on Callow Avenue.   This investment on the heels of $15 million HNI has invested in Reservoir Hill over the years, will begin eliminating the last concentration of vacant buildings in the community.
  • HUD riders on the Druid Park Lake Drive vacant lots are no longer an impediment to a project on those sites and two neighbors are leading communications with Baltimore Housing and the Department of Planning to develop a document to guide development there.   
  • Work along the Whitelock Corridor continues to turn vacant lots into public spaces where residents can interact, and most of the vacant space on the 900 block will have been renovated by mid-2014.
  • We have an extensive set of street change requests on file with Department of Transportation.  
  • And most recently, RHIC entered a partnership with Druid Heights CDC, Coppin Heights CDC, and Neighborhood Design Center to create a North Avenue Streetscape plan from Charles Street west to Hilton.

Not to underestimate the challenges remaining, but if we make the most of our relationships with city departments, our non-profit and for-profit partners, and with broad and deep community engagement, we are collectively poised to stimulate some major changes in Reservoir Hill.

If you attended our Annual Meeting last November you heard the public discussion over how to build on the $15 million investment coming through the redevelopment of John Eager Howard School.  The major topic of the panel discussion at the Annual Meeting was the need for a community plan to guide and foster more strategic public and private investment in the communities surrounding schools undergoing redevelopment.

For instance, if $15 million is being invested in John Eager Howard Elementary School and its immediate grounds, perhaps the city should prioritize improvements to the sidewalks and streets children use to get to and from school, and devote more funds to rehabbing the 24 vacant houses on the 2200 and 2300 blocks of Callow Avenue.  If some children from Westside Elementary will attend John Eager Howard when Westside closes there needs to be a safe streets strategy for the routes taking them to and from school.  If the library on Pennsylvania Avenue is to remain our closest library, there need to be improvements to North Avenue that would let parents feel good about their children going there.  The list goes on.

A strategic investment strategy can help school development jump to being neighborhood development.  This calls for a new tool, a new community planning document, but not just a plan that sits on a shelf – a vibrant, tool we actively use.  We need the analysis and ideas of community members and professional expertise to create such a plan. And we need the participation of city departments to ensure that our work gets incorporated into Baltimore Housing, Department of Transportation, and other departments.

However, if it were just Reservoir Hill, the impact on other neighborhoods would be limited. Consequently, our exploration of this subject has included conversations with the Mayor’s office, city departments, and a range of allies.

Fortunately, we are not alone in our interest in creating such strategic investing.   In fact, there is citywide interest in promoting more strategic investment in communities where schools are being redeveloped to maximize the community development impact of the school investment. This interest is being taken up by non-profit organizations, architects, and city personnel.  Transform Baltimore is very interested in more strategic use of resources in communities where schools are being developed.  In addition, the concept was incorporated into Baltimore City Public School System’s citywide 21st Century Education Expo. And the Baltimore City Department of Planning will invest significant time to help communities develop such plans

Further, the grassroots campaign of the last few years to win sufficient funding to redevelop all city schools as 21st Century school buildings has created the structures in Transform Baltimore and Baltimore Education Coalition that allow us to collectively advance creative approaches to school-based neighborhood revitalization. 

NDC is interested in playing a role in creating models of community planning that produce tools for guiding such investment along lines that have community support, and Reservoir Hill will be one of the first communities where such a model will be developed. 

All told, we are in a good position to develop a strategic investment plan in 2014 that could produce good results for Reservoir Hill, but which could also offer lessons for other communities.

At present, we are in the early stages of putting the project together.  The project will have strong technical and community outreach components.  NDC will recruit four pro-bono professionals to work over several months with RHIC staff, community residents, and institutional partners like Child First, Healthy Neighborhoods,and others.  The composition of this team will be based upon a needs assessment, but could be expected to include such skills as urban planning, architecture, and real estate development.

NDC staff and professionals recruited by NDC will work with RHIC staff,institutional partners, and community members to ensure that high quality information is gathered and used in the production of planning products.  Simultaneously, a broad and deep community engagement process will ensure that the products reflect community involvement.

We are currently exploring the composition of the NDC and community teams, and hammering out our working relationship with the Department of Planning.

We will have more to report in the coming weeks. In the meantime, for more information, or to help, contact Rick Gwynallen in the RHIC office at 410.225.7547, or by e-mail at rgwynallen@reservoirhill.net

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