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January 07, 2016

Baltimore to emulate Philadelphia's fraught Neighborhood Transformation Initiative

Project C.O.R.E. plan attempts to improve model of blight-fighting program introduced under former Mayor Street

In a move that will revive a blight- and crime- fighting program established by former Philadelphia Mayor John Street, Maryland Governor John Hogan announced this week that the city of Baltimore will undertake a $700 million initiative to combat urban decay. 

Governor Hogan announced that the program, named Project C.O.R.E., will focus on demolishing blighted properties in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where Freddie Gray grew up, according to The Baltimore Sun. The plan, supported by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, calls for $94 million over four years to demolish about 4,000 vacant properties, specifically rowhomes that Hogan called "hotbeds for crime." 

Dubbed "demolition dollars on steroids" by Rawlings-Blake, Project C.O.R.E. will also receive an additional $600 million in subsidies from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to promote redevelopment.

In many respects, the plan resembles the $300 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative launched by former Mayor Street in 2001. The NTI similarly focused on demolishing derelict properties and positioning them for redevelopment, but the plan fell victim to overbilling by demolition companies and limited revenue to back up the bond payments used to fund it, according to Philadelinquency. Left with just about $22 million sitting in city-controlled accounts as of 2016, the NTI is largely viewed as a failure. 

Four years into the program NTI transformed itself.  City Council, agencies and activists started to see NTI more as a honeypot to pay for all sorts of pet projects rather than follow Street’s original vision.  Street also didn’t propose a rigid structure for what purposes the money was to be used for.  This left the decisions to the whims of City Council. 

The key differences between the NTI and Project C.O.R.E. are that the latter will benefit from a secure funding source and a smaller territory. After a promising start in Northwest Philadelphia, NTI ran into issues related to rising crime rates and a patchwork approach to demolitions (necessitated by an uneven flow of condemnation orders on blighted properties). Those delays made the coordination of redevelopment efforts a challenge and ultimately prevented the program from becoming transformative. 

Kenneth C. Holt, Maryland's Secretary of Housing, said redevelopment plans in Baltimore will be incentive-based and range from affordable housing and mixed-use projects to market-based developments. Hogan's announcement was largely met with praise by both Democrats and Republicans in Maryland, but the funding plan must first pass the state's General Assembly and Baltimore City Council before gaining final approval.