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City drags feet on revitalization

December 07, 2008

Given the City of Hagerstown's track record for action - if action is the right word, and it almost certainly isn't - any accusations of foot-dragging on its part need to be taken seriously.

In a community where failures are usually swept under the rug, Dick Phoebus broke with tradition recently and called out City Hall for, in his opinion, botching a significant housing project that would have built high-end town homes between Baltimore Street and the public library.

The Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership, of which Phoebus is president, bought three acres worth of decaying buildings and weed-cracked macadam nearly four years ago, under the assurance that the city would secure federal redevelopment money to help pay for the project.

Not until a year later did the city perform a historic review of the property, which found that - oops - some of said decaying properties were historic. Projects that include the demolition of historic properties are ineligible for federal finding.

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At the same time, Phoebus said the city code division was leaning on the partnership to tear down the historic buildings - which would seal the no-federal-funding deal.

City officials blame the housing bust for the project's failure, saying that project's demise is no one's fault. That may be true now, but it certainly wasn't back in 2005.

And the city's "defense" for historic-review dawdling really strikes at the heart of the matter. Seeing as how no developer had signed on the dotted line to build the townhouses at the time, the city said it didn't see the rush.

Turn now to a time when the city did see the rush - that would be the development of the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown downtown campus. No one was waiting around then to see who the contractor was going to be. There was a sense of urgency, and we've seen the splendid results. The same can be said of the city's involvement with the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts.

So the city can do it, and has done it.

But Phoebus has a point when it comes to a number of other projects, where the city can show a maddening lack of urgency. If someone hands the project to the city on a silver platter, as the state did with the campus and the Board of Education did with the arts school, all is well.

But when the city must play a major role with boots on the ground - where it must be proactive instead of reactive - projects always seem to sputter. To quote the late Howard Cosell, the city does not exactly move down the field with alacrity.

At least three downtown business owners I've talked to practically begged for help in relocating to other downtown locations, either to expand or because of rent hikes. All three reported the same thing - that same lack of urgency. One business owner was able to relocate, but two eventually moved out of the downtown.

So Phoebus is not alone in his complaints. And he is correct to talk about them publicly, because it seems at this point to have stirred some action.

To the city's credit, it - publicly at least - responded to the partnership's accusations in measured terms and did nothing to escalate this into a war. "I don't want to point a finger; I think we need to sit down and find a consensus," said Mayor Bob Bruchey.

And if one wishes to reach for further silver linings, here is another to try on for size: What if the development had moved forward and these 30 town homes had hit the market in 2006, just as the first signs of the housing slump were emerging? Would there have been any buyers? In this case a delay, however unplanned, might have been fortuitous.

The theory behind upscale housing downtown is rock solid. We are overweighted with fixed-income residences, and while ultra-affordable housing has its place, it is not a driver of the downtown economic engine. It needs to be balanced with people who have the disposable income, who will walk a few blocks to shop, eat, listen to music and see a show.

The private sector has been inching in this direction, with several condo projects that - if and when this financial crisis lifts - should be a shot in the economic arm.

But some public, or quasi-public assistance in this direction is not out of place. Beyond the upscale housing, the project would transform a rotting half-block in the middle of town into an attractive property. That would lift the tide of the entire neighborhood and encourage more redevelopment on its fringes.

With this in mind, the partnership and the city should continue to soldier on - and the lesson should be that the city should not need to have its cage rattled for progress such as this to occur.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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