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Some unfortunate events threaten to claim city's momentum

June 26, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

At a time when Hagerstown supporters are recognizing the need to encourage wealthier people to live within the city, Washington County's white hot real estate market is conspiring against them.

Indeed, at a time when it already faces a number of challenges, the new City Council will face no greater challenge than this: How do we keep the city from turning into Washington County's attic - the creepy part of the house where no one wants to go, populated by the unproductive and outdated articles that can find a home nowhere else.

The prices of Washington County homes (and Washington County's tighter zoning would only exacerbate this) is already passing the affordability level for most of our native stock. This will increasingly leave the city as the abode of last resort for those on fixed incomes, public assistance or low-level jobs.

While they are certainly legitimate members of any community whose needs must be met, they are not the groups who will shop at upscale downtown boutiques, eat at pricey restaurants, see shows, go to ballgames and, in short, make the downtown a desirable place to be.

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This isn't to say the goal is to make the downtown a playground for the rich, but rather a place of ample opportunity for the greatest number of people and the greatest number of interests.

It's not an easy chore, especially since the downtown currently appears to be in the middle of one of those "one step backs" before it can move another two forward. Disputes with City Hall and commercial rental rates that are beginning to skyrocket have cost the downtown several businesses and dampened some of the recent enthusiasm.

At least two of these business owners grumbled that City Hall wasn't particularly responsive to requests for help. The city needs to understand that there is at the least the perception of a problem in this regard and address it.

The rent situation is curious, because at first blush Hagerstown has no shortage of supply, or in this case, empty storefronts. But these buildings are basically uninhabitable by anything other than pigeons with low standards and could not be made ready in the foreseeable future, so for all practical purposes they do not count among the inventory.

What the city does have is a nicely done streetscape, interesting promotions and a couple of good starts - those good starts being the planned upscale housing development near the library and the gorgeous University System of Maryland campus.

These are two bold steps that City Hall has gotten right. Both can be used as a foundation to grow upon, but both also need some nurturing and expansion.

Councilwoman Penny Nigh, in her way, was correct some time ago when she pointed out the unpleasantries of Section 8 houses and households. Section 8 was designed to eliminate vertical high-rises of low-income and low-hope housing projects. But in cities, Section 8 households tend to cluster, creating a "horizontal high-rise" of low-income and low-hope housing projects.

No doubt Nigh understands that these widening pockets need to be "broken up" by plugging in housing for people of better means, much they way you would set plugs of healthy grass into a weedy lawn. The Baltimore Street project is on the books, and next up will be consideration of a rather massive East End redevelopment involving not just homes, but commercial and recreational opportunities.

This isn't to say the overall goal is to "get rid" of low-income families. The goal is to give those of low income and low education a clear opportunity for improvement. A college atmosphere within walking distance of most all of the central city is a good start. Particularly if those doing the programming have an eye on their audience and offer some classes through which women who made poor choices when they were girls can find the semblance of a career.

Too late for that? In many cases, sure. It's a generational change and one that can only be broken by planting the very best of our public schools smack dab in the middle of the city. Make parents drool to get their kids into Bester and Winter Street; have those annoying but well-bejeweled mothers elbowing their way into board offices trying to get their prodigies to feed into South High; watch as the downtown school for the arts begins to attract creative and visionary people into the city where they will muse over the possibilities for all the great old buildings.

A friend may or may not have been joking when he said recently that the best thing that happened to Hagerstown was that - when it began to fail - people just gave up. There were no mass bulldozings of city blocks in an effort to try something new. So we still have the grand old architecture that many, more energetic, cities have lost.

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