Making the Brown Track Green

Mar 31, 2014

The first impression train travelers from the north get of Baltimore isn’t a very good one.

And that makes potential investors leery of the city.

The train rolls past older, active neighborhoods at first. But once past Frank Bocek Park, the scenery changes to block after block of crumbling, vacant houses, right in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital’s famous.  Some roofs have caved in and windows are broken.  Sometimes walls have crumbled away entirely, leaving the interior of the houses visible.

“It’s horrible,” says City Councilman Carl Stokes who represents the neighborhood the tracks pass through. “I’ve come in on that Amtrak line, frankly, several times and just was appalled at what I was seeing as you come into East Baltimore from the train windows.”

Local commuters also are worried about the view from the train. John Oakey travels from Eastern Baltimore County to Washington every day by train. He says people from Baltimore may be used to the scenery, but others aren’t.

“If that’s your first impression of the city, it may not paint a favorable picture about Baltimore,” he said.

Don Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, says business travelers tell him the blight near the train tracks is different from other cities, which makes it hard for his organization to sell the city to investors from places like New York and Philadelphia.

“Although you’ve got Johns Hopkins Hospital which is one of the iconic features of Baltimore and one of the greatest economic engines of Baltimore; you’re sort of deflected away from that,” Fry said.

GBC and the city have been trying to figure out how to spruce up the area since 2010.  The city has already started some work through two programs; the Growing Green Initiative and Vacants to Value.  The Growing Green Initiative turns vacant lots into green space to control storm water run-off or into urban farms.  The Vacants to Value program rehabs vacant houses so they can be sold.

Colin Tarbert, deputy director of the city’s Office of Economic and Neighborhood Development, says the programs have made some progress. The city has demolished a blocks of vacant houses, for example.

“There’s the new East Baltimore Community School that’s been built and efforts are underway to increase demolition as well as greening efforts to improve the neighborhood,” he said.

The city plans to tear down more than 60 vacant houses this summer; most of them visible from the train along the 2300 and 2400 blocks of East Eager Street as part of a plan called “Operation Green Tracks.”

It calls for green space to connect current revitalization projects, such as the new Henderson-Hopkins School building and homes already being rehabilitated.  It also would use green spaces to connect any future development projects involving the city-owned pumping station and the former Hoen Lithograph building at Chase and Chester streets.

The city only spoke in vague terms about the plan.

“Those concepts are very much just concepts at this point and we want to make sure that we have the opportunity to reach out to stakeholders as we develop future improvements plans,” Tarbert said.

The city has set aside $3 million to launch the project, with most of the money going towards demolition.

“Deconstructing Vacants: Baltimore’s Hope for a Better City” is made possible through a grant from the Goldseker Foundation.