Early this January on a cold Tuesday, the governor of Maryland stood at a podium in the middle of a street full of vacant row houses in Baltimore. On the left of Governor Larry Hogan was Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, and on his right stood an easel with a rendering showing his vision for that block’s, and the city’s, near future—an empty green lawn. As the crowd politely applauded, a backhoe began chewing apart an empty row house. This was the press event announcing Project CORE, Hogan’s new plan to revitalize Baltimore by spending $700 million by 2020.
Baltimore is a city that was built for nearly a million people. Since 1950, its population has declined to less than two-thirds that number. The city has, at last count, more than 16,000 vacant houses. Baltimore is one of the oldest cities in the country; the dominant housing type is the attached row house. When one of these is left vacant, or is demolished, the entire block has less insulation, less structural integrity, and less social cohesion. Vacancy and demolition here can be especially costly and destructive.
A 2001 report on vacant housing in Baltimore, by James Cohen of the University of Maryland Urban Studies and Planning program details how vacant homes “contribute to neighborhood decline and frustrate revitalization efforts by becoming eyesores, fire hazards, and sites for drug related activity, vagrancy, and rodent infestation.” A vacant house can become a location for crime, but it can also play a part in the larger economic system surrounding illegal activity. The same report cites the ownership and use of vacants for laundering profits from drug operations as a persistent hindrance to the city’s attempt to renew empty neighborhoods.
Governor Hogan is hoping that this situation will be improved by removing vacant housing from the equation, and adding new empty space instead. “Fixing what is broken in Baltimore requires that we address the sea of abandoned, dilapidated buildings infecting entire neighborhoods,” said the governor. “Together, we will transform these neighborhoods from centers for crime and drugs, to places our city, and our entire state, can be proud of.” Along with financing for redevelopment, Project CORE will spend $94 million on demolishing vacant houses over the next four years, leaving grass filled lots behind.
The empty space in Hogan’s rendering was reminiscent of another graphic recently produced by the Governor’s office. In June of 2015, Hogan announced transportation spending for the state, with a map showing a vacant hole where Baltimore City should be. This came after the governor’s announcement that the state would not be moving forward with a new light rail line in the city that had been planned for over a decade, and had already been approved for federal funding.
As architect and theorist Keller Easterling hints in her 2014 book Subtraction, on the architecture of building removal, the immediately obvious vacancy in the city can indicate other unseen things happening elsewhere within the larger system. The void left by the retraction of state funding for transportation in Baltimore may offer opportunities for the surrounding counties. And instead of the creation of new development through the addition of a light rail line, there is now the hope that subtraction of empty buildings can motivate renewal and reconstruction. With funds for “strategic demolition” set to rise as high as $25 million a year by 2019, this program certainly offers new opportunities for architects in Baltimore. After all, who doesn’t love a green field site?