Battling blight, at the speed of Baltimore

If the city wants to sell derelict properties to owners who would pay taxes, borrow this approach pioneered by Johns Hopkins

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Having moved here 20 years ago this month, I feel pretty confident saying that as old-fashioned and cautious about change as this city sometimes is, it nonetheless prides itself on being at the forefront of new thinking.

That's an interesting combination. And also, often, a very frustrating one -- especially if you're stuck in a situation where change is desperately needed and those who could make it happen say nothing but, "We don't do that here."

Why not, I ask, if the new way is so obviously logical? Even lifesaving ...

And then I play my trump card: Why not -- if Baltimore can do it?

Thanks to our football rivalry -- and the shared Rust Belt image we're doing so much to overcome -- nothing could juice our competitive spirit more, you'd think, than the mention that, well, Baltimore is doing it. Or Cleveland.

Diana Nelson Jones, whose Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "City Walkabout" blog is a must-read (post-gazette.com/citywalk), has as big a heart for this city and as insatiable a curiosity as anyone I know. We've made overlapping efforts lately on a couple of big problems that Pittsburgh's still-recovering city neighborhoods face.

When I left the PG staff to freelance, I began devoting most of my time to the neighborhood council that leads the effort to revitalize our blighted, beleaguered community.

One very real consequence of the blight is that some city neighborhoods have many impassable, crumbling sidewalks. That's a significant safety issue in a community like ours where upwards of 60 percent of our residents rely on walking and public transport.

Diana took on this topic in her Tuesday column (which is called simply "Walkabout," in case she wishes to wander beyond city limits). A couple of elderly women in the Spring Garden neighborhood told her they have to leave the sidewalk and walk in the middle of a busy thoroughfare -- one with quite a few blind curves -- to get to the local pharmacy and general store. It's a tragedy waiting to happen.

I wrote to Diana about the high number of abandoned properties hereabouts, whose owners are often deceased and therefore not too concerned with property maintenance.

If the city wants to sell properties to living owners who would pay taxes and maintain sidewalks, why not borrow an proactive approach pioneered in Baltimore?

When Johns Hopkins University wanted to expand into a neighborhood that was almost empty, it hired lots of paralegals and arranged to place them in city offices to initiate title searches and "quiet title" proceedings for all the vacant parcels.

Our city staffers are stretched thin, too, so the city doesn't launch the "quiet-title" process until someone requests to buy a tax-delinquent property. The process can take up to two years.

We need some entity with deep pockets to do what Johns Hopkins did to get these properties ready for redevelopment and back on the tax rolls.

The extra measure of population loss my community experienced was due to the construction of I-279. Thanks to federal and state transportation decisions, we joke that East Deutschtown is now little more than an on-ramp to the highway.

Residents of a similar Baltimore neighborhood I observed a few years ago asked and received permission from the city to install low-profile speed risers in the streets and to lower local speed limits. If our 25 mph limit means 40 mph to truck and school bus drivers, perhaps a 15 mph would get them down to 30.

But whenever we ask anyone from city government about this, they say, "We don't do that here."

I shudder to think what it might take to get the powers-that-be to consider such a modest accommodation to public safety. And I hate to concede that Baltimoreans could be smarter than we are.

Last week I wrote about successful programs of the Ravenstahl administration that I hope Pittsburgh's next mayor will be humble enough to continue.

But I missed an opportunity to highlight another terrific Ravenstahl innovation that needs to be continued: the Green Team, a special division of the Public Works Department.

The grading, digging, tree-moving and provision of topsoil and Belgian blocks I mentioned we received in our "Love Your Block" project? All done by the Green Team.

While "Love Your Block" leveraged their work for my community's latest undertaking (the very ambitious "Teutonia Platz"), the Green Team had already, since its creation in 2008, provided tens of thousands of dollars of labor and materials -- soil, plants, mulch, labor and ongoing maintenance -- to nearby "green-up sites" that we arranged directly with city government.

The Green Team deserves a special shout-out -- and the city needs for their work to continue well beyond January.

ruthanndailey

Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com.


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