Baltimore’s Project CORE Clears the Way

6 min read

City and state team up to demolish hurdles to new development

A bulldozer tore into the brown bricks of Madison Park North apartments on December 9. Built in the 1970s under the federal Sec. 8 program, the 200-unit property had a terrible reputation in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of West Baltimore.

“This was Murder Mall,” says Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Demolition on the eight-acre site will clear the way for new retail spaces, apartments and the 50,000-square-foot Innovation Village, a plan to bring technology job training and startups to the neighborhood in partnership with local colleges. “Transformative projects like this will help ensure that Baltimore’s future is better and brighter than its present or its past,” says Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.

The demolition of Madison Park North is one of the 30 projects in the first round of Project CORE, an ambitious new partnership between the State of Maryland and the City of Baltimore to spark new development through demolition. The program plans to spend $93.5 million in four years to demolish structures that have stood in the way of redevelopment plans. Baltimore neighborhoods have been blighted for decades by tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned buildings that are too damaged to repair and expensive to tear down.

Riots tore through Baltimore
Project CORE is partly an effort to help neighborhoods damaged in the riots of April 2015. Violent demonstrations swept through the city after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

The Mary Harvin Transformation Center in East Baltimore was just one of the buildings damaged by fire. The 61-unit affordable senior housing and community center project was nearly completed in April 2015 when it burned.

The rioting focused city and state leaders on the plight of neighborhoods that have struggled for years.

“After the civil unrest, Governor Hogan spent several days walking the neighborhoods and talking with community leaders,” says Michael White, director of the Office of Public Information for the Maryland Department ofHousing and Community Development (DHCD). “There are blocks of blight in Baltimore.”

Under Project CORE, the State of Maryland will spend $75 million over four years. The City of Baltimore will spend another $18.5 million for a total of $93.5 million. The first demolitions began in summer 2016, with a targeted group of properties managed by the city and the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Then in December, Project CORE awarded $16 million to 30 projects, including the demolition of Madison Park North. Each of these projects is meant to unlock the development potential of a site.

“There are lots of opportunities out there that can’t happen because of some hurdle,” says John Maneval, deputy director of the Community Development Administration for DHCD.

For example, at Madison Park North, plans to redevelop the property had frozen because projected budgets could not support the cost of demolition.

“The project was stalled looking for $2 million to get this community of blight removed,” says Michael. “They already had interest from developers and tenants if they could get the lot.”

Mount Royal Community Development Corporation received $2 million through Project CORE for the demolition. Developer MCB Real Estate and nearby colleges, like Coppin State University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, have already signed on as partners for Mount Royal’s Innovation Village, which will provide space and support to tech startups.

“Where imagination lights a spark… people can create the next Tesla or Google, right here in West Baltimore,” says Richard May, co-founder of Mount Royal CDC.

Project CORE is making the most of an unusual opportunity. States and cities are rarely able to contribute such large amounts of their own funding to community development. Over the last decade, many states have cut programs, like housing trust funds.

To choose the 30 projects in its first round, Project CORE collected applications from 36 Baltimore city agencies and community organizations, which had submitted proposals for 77 projects.

“We are not trying to be proscriptive,” says Maneval. “We rely on our partners to identify these opportunities for us.”

Project CORE picked the 30 winning projects through a point-scored application process that favored development ideas that could get started immediately and that would have the biggest impact on the neighborhood nearby.

“Readiness to proceed was a major factor in our scoring,” says DHCD’s White.

For example, Walbrook Lumber is another site targeted for demolition by Project Core. The vacant lumberyard next to the campus of Coppin State University in West Baltimore has been closed for more than five years and the industrial site acts as a barrier between the university and the rest of the neighborhood.

Neighborhood Housing Services received $2 million to demolish the lumberyard to make way for its planned $20.2 million North Avenue Revitalization.

A history of abandonment
Baltimore has struggled for decades with tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned properties. The riots simply brought attention to Baltimore’s toughest streets – along with a willingness in the legislature to do something meaningful to make a difference.

In the decades after World War II, Baltimore lost nearly a third of its population as factories closed and many families moved out to the suburbs. The exodus left behind whole streets of abandoned homes. The city now has about 16,500 vacant and boarded-up properties, most of which are privately owned, as well as another 19,000 vacant lots.

Of the boarded-up buildings, some can be targeted for renovation.

“However, approximately 10,000 are severely deteriorated and located in distressed neighborhoods where there simply isn’t enough demand to support their rehabilitation,” says Tania Baker, spokesperson for Baltimore Housing. “Demolition is the only viable option.”

The annual budget for demolition in Baltimore is now at an all-time high with $10 million in city funding through 2021. However, even this won’t be enough to solve Baltimore’s blighted neighborhoods.

“Our analysis suggests that meeting Baltimore’s full demolition needs would cost upwards of $500 million,” says Baker. “We can address only a small part of the need to eliminate vacant, blighted structures each year with current budgets.”

The city plans to make as much progress as it can with the infusion of funding from Project CORE. And the city has a strong track record of reclaiming neighborhoods from blight in recent decades.

For example, in the Remington neighborhood near Penn Station, concerted community planning has helped stabilize the property values. Developments like Remington Grove, which combined residential and commercial development with federal New Markets Tax Credit subsidies, helped make the difference.

“The neighborhood has really transformed,” says White. “No one would have thought that what these neighborhoods are today would have been possible ten years ago.”