Park Heights: Exploring Baltimore’s neighborhoods

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“You might have heard today that there were three shootings that happened over there on Cold Spring. Part of that stuff is what we’re trying to weed out. That element, as long as drugs continue to rule …”

Julius “Julio” Colon is aware of the perception – and, as noted in the quote above, the reality – of Park Heights. In his role as president and CEO of Park Heights Renaissance, Colon sees evidence of urban blight every day. Vacant buildings throughout the neighborhood. Forty-some liquor stores dotting long stretches of Park Heights Avenue and Reisterstown Road. Significantly higher-than-average rates of teen pregnancy, HIV infection and recidivism among residents.

Central Park Heights

» Border streets: Reisterstown Road/Pimlico Road/Belvedere Avenue/Keyworth Avenue
» Neighboring areas: Pimlico, Arlington, Glen, Greenspring, Cylburn, Towanda-Grantley, Park Circle
» More coverage: Preakness and Pimlico, more news from Park Heights

Those are Park Heights’ realities. It’s Colon’s job with PHR and part of the nonprofit’s mission to change those realities, revitalizing the neighborhood through funding from private foundations, corporations and slots money. The Pimlico Community Development Authority, which receives slots and racetrack impact funds, recommends to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake how those funds should be allocated. Colon is tasked with seeing those recommendations through in the Park Heights Master Plan area (Park Circle to Northern Parkway, Wabash to Greenspring Avenue). There is plenty of work to do in one of Baltimore’s most historic neighborhoods.

“We have to change the image, we have to market more, the positive things in this community and what the resources are,” said Colon, a New York City native with a master’s degree in real estate finance and management from NYU. “And of course we have to eliminate the bad element, but there’s that everywhere in this city. The thing is, there is progress being made.”

Much of that progress has been made off the main streets of Park Heights. On Violet Avenue, PHR partnered with Baltimore’s Affordable Housing Corporation on Monteverde, a $30 million project that resulted in a 301-unit apartment building for “seniors and non-elderly disabled residents.” Up the block, about 10 formerly abandoned and dilapidated rowhomes were renovated inside and out.

“This is the example that we’re looking to follow in Park Heights by revitalizing blocks,” Colon said. “What you find in Park Heights is pockets of abandonment. It is scattered throughout, but it’s not like every part of this particular target area. We’re looking at doing cluster developments – bringing enough sites together so that we can put it out to the city as an RFP to get a developer to redevelop the area.”

Several blocks away, the Jean Yarborough Renaissance Gardens – a 60-unit, income-restricted apartment for seniors – was opened in January. It represented collaboration between the African-American and Jewish populations in the neighborhood, the latter of which is mostly located above Northern Parkway and outside the Park Heights Master Plan. The building was erected on the site of The Ranch, an area of Section 8 housing that was notorious for violence and drug-related crime.

Back on the main stretch, the 4600, 4700 and 4800 blocks of Park Heights Avenue, on the east and west sides of the street, are preparing for demolition over the next two years followed by eventual reconstruction. Colon has already begun the acquisition process.

“People have been waiting for this,” he said. “See some of these houses, they’re worth what, 30, 40 thousand dollars? Some people leave with about on average $150,000 in relocation. [They say], ‘I’m going to buy a house, move into a major redevelopment area, and I’ve got 150 grand. What an investment!’”

Other highlights of the neighborhood include a seven-acre park and turf field, built in partnership with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, and the Lillie May Carroll Jackson Charter School, which is set to open in the old St. Ambrose Catholic School building. Improvements are also in the works or already in progress at the Baltimore Junior Academy, Pimlico Elementary/Middle and Arlington Elementary/Middle.

Though the development area still has major anchor institutions in Pimlico Race Course (opened in 1870), Sinai Hospital (built as the Hebrew Hospital and Asylum in 1866) and nearby Cylburn Arboretum (1954), the area has undergone major transformation through the decades. What was once one of Baltimore’s great ethnic melting pots is now almost completely segregated.

Colon hopes that improved schools, reconstruction and redevelopment will help to attract new residents, noting that 41 homes were purchased in the area in 2013. The neighborhood is considered a food desert, but some commercial development has taken place, most notably at the Hilltop Shopping Center, which has a Subway, a Little Caesars Pizza and a PNC Bank, in addition to the city’s lone MVA location.

There’s still much to be done throughout Park Heights, but Colon believes PHR is on the right track in its development efforts, and the neighborhood has turned a corner.

“I’m very optimistic. This is going to be just like the Lower East Side,” said Colon, referring to his old Manhattan stomping grounds. “When you come over here, 10 years from now, 15 years from now, and I’m retired and drinking margaritas on the beach, you’re going to be saying, ‘Wow, why didn’t I invest in Park Heights?’”

This is part of an ongoing series from The Baltimore Sun about the history, culture, and future of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Have a suggestion for what neighborhood to explore next? Let us know.