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Developing a Different Kind of Renaissance in Park Heights

Julius Colon - President/CEO, Park Heights Renaissance - Arianne Teeple
Julius Colon - President/CEO, Park Heights Renaissance - Arianne Teeple
Baltimore, like most post-industrial American cities, is in the midst of reinventing itself. Political and economic leaders here are quick to tout the resurgence of neighborhoods that have bucked their past identities as enclaves of factory and dock workers in exchange for trendy young professionals and enterprising condo developers.
But as Canton and Federal Hill are held up as models for reclaiming struggling neighborhoods, more muted triumphs are taking place in an area that doesn't yet hold a place of honor in Baltimore's civic trophy case.
Park Heights, a neighborhood whose name has long been synonymous with many of the problems the city is still working to shake, is making a slow and steady turnaround through the combined efforts of community leaders, non-profit organizations, local businesses, and political figures with ties to the area.

Leading the charge has been Park Heights Renaissance, a non-profit organization working to organize and promote redevelopment in the neighborhood. President and CEO Julius Colon, a community redevelopment veteran with over three decades of experience in New York and New Jersey, arrived in Baltimore two years ago and took the helm of PHR, tasked with shepherding the Park Heights Master Plan and implementing its recommendations at street level.
In contrast to the dramatic, and some would say disruptive renewal effort underway across town near Hopkins, redevelopment in Park Heights has been organic and measured, with an emphasis on inclusion of neighborhood residents in all stages of the process. It hasn't been easy, but the area has gradually gained momentum, and growth continues to be sustainable.
"It is, more and more, becoming a neighborhood of opportunity," Colon says.
The significant amount of development projects in the area bear this out. The Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, will be moving its headquarters to Park Heights early this summer, bringing an influx of state workers and triggering a ripple effect of improvements to area infrastructure and facades.
Additionally, a variety of open space projects are being set aside in the neighborhood. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a longtime Park Heights resident and supporter, will appear at a groundbreaking on April 16th for a new playground and garden, converted from four empty parcels of land. This fall, Cal Ripken will break ground at a ball field next to the CC Jackson Recreation Center on Park Heights Avenue. PHR received a grant of $100,000 to rehabilitate Lucille Park, including the installation of a football field. PHR also recently issued an RFP for providers of affordable housing for 29 parcels near Pimlico which were recently released by the city.
This steady growth can be traced back to the Park Heights Master Plan, completed in 2006. Former Mayor Martin O'Malley had hoped the plan would be drafted in three months when he commissioned it in 2003. It took two years.
A central figure in drafting the plan was Otis Rolley, current mayoral hopeful and former Director of Planning for Baltimore City. According to Rolley, a measured approach was set from the start.
"The community made it very clear," Rolley says. "Before you touch a brick or put a shovel in the ground you need to be investing in people. The first three years, we didn't get any press, but money was being spent on substance abuse treatment, job training, and summer jobs for teens. It was all people-focused, which helped us build credibility.
The pace of development in Park Heights is deliberate, and that is intentional, according to Rolley.
"I'm pleased the plan took as long as it did, because it ended up being very comprehensive," he says. "We very much wanted the community to have ownership over the plan, this wasn't urban renewal in the grand sense."
"I think the work Park Heights Renaissance is doing is laying the groundwork for a comprehensive growth strategy," says Steve Gondol, BRAC Relocation Manager at Live Baltimore. "They have a holistic view of the community; a key to redeveloping successfully. The challenges [Park Heights] faces are no different than what other areas face, such as tighter lending terms, a smaller pool of buyers, and the variety of options for living throughout the city."
The neighborhood's resurgence can also be attributed to a spirit of cooperation between residents young and old, spanning ethnic groups. When area liquor stores -- often the scene of crime and neighborhood problems -- began stocking their shelves with candy, neighborhood parents banded together to support legislation that limited their operating hours.
Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. (CHAI), a Jewish housing assistance non-profit, has begun reaching out to the African-American community in Park Heights, in an effort to bring together two communities with an intertwined history in Baltimore residential development.
"At one time Park Heights was a predominantly Jewish community," Colon says. "This community is still interested in helping with the area's revitalization."
Park Circle is a byzantine intersection at the convergence of Druid Park Drive, Reisterstown Road, and Park Heights Avenue. According to Colon, the area is being reworked to optimize traffic flow and aesthetic appeal, and the end result will be one of the largest roundabouts in the world. The $11 million dollar project will "serve as a gateway to Park Heights," says Colon.
"The community has a strong sense of history and that I believe has helped them understand where they want to be in 5, 10, 15 years," says Live Baltimore's Gondol. "I often hear how the magnificent tree-lined streets added to the character of the community, and the variety of housing stock and access to mass transit are both amenities that are attractive to residents."
The area has even made the telltale move of a neighborhood with ambition -- the launch of a branding campaign. "Bold New Heights" is the tagline, complete with a Twitter account and banners that will soon be flying on lampposts from Druid Park Drive to Northern Parkway.
"In any area where there has been disinvestment, there's an eagerness to see it transformed quickly," Rolley says. "I'm seeing a lot more civic engagement and participation than there was back in 2003. People are clued in on the challenges, issues, and what the neighborhood's assets are, and I think that's a very positive thing."

Jason Policastro is a freelance writer.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple:

- Julius Colon, President/CEO of the Park Heights Renaissance
- A map of the Park Heights Community
- Weinberg Afya Center at Park Heights in Baltimore, MD
- Julius Colon, President/CEO of the Park Heights Renaissance
- Kidscape edible garden site plan in the Park Heights Community
- The Hilltop Shopping Center in the Park Heights Community
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