For years, residents of neighborhoods surrounding York Road have called on Baltimore officials to invest in the heavily traveled corridor.
Often used as a getaway from the city into the county, the road has what residents call a “trash problem” and is viewed as unsafe for pedestrians and bicyclists.
But now parts of the corridor are included in a business improvement district, a move proponents hope will lead to revitalization of the corridor. Council member Mark Conway, who represents the area, called it a landmark moment.
Property owners within the proposed boundaries of the district — located along two miles between 39th Street and Northern Parkway — had to vote to create the district. The city’s Board of Estimates determined last week that owners had met the 58% threshold to create the district, something that wasn’t met in another attempt in 2019. Forty-one of 51 property owners that voted were in support of the creation of the district.
Establishing the district comes with an annual fee of $.22 per $100 of the assessed property value. Among the represented property owners who voted against it were the Senator Theater, Jerry’s Belvedere Tavern, an affordable housing management company and a finance corporation based in Netherlands.
But what exactly is a BID — as some people call the improvement district? And what could it mean for neighborhoods surrounding it?
Let’s dive in.
What led to the creation of this district?
In 2015, the city’s planning department adopted the York Road Commercial Corridor Vision & Action Plan, a report that sets initiatives to improve the area. The thought was that under the goals set forth, York Road could be cleaner and greener, and, as a result, more attractive for people who visit and travel through the corridor — people who, hopefully, will become customers at businesses in the area.
The plan identified “poor attitude of commercial property owners,” “sloppy and cluttered streetscape,” “poor aesthetics south of Belvedere Square” and the amount of trash as some of the challenges to solve, as well as crime and safety concerns.
Establishing a district is the first step of the plan.
The annual fee from property owners will generate about $200,000, according to community organizer Sarah Ceponis. The district will receive a federal grant of $230,000 for this year to fund activities, Ceponis said. After that, the district will work toward a budget of at least $400,000.
OK, but what does it actually do?
The vision for the district is similar to what the Downtown Partnership currently does in Baltimore, Conway said. They are now going to hire an executive director to identify resources, apply for grants and coordinate promotion efforts. The director will hire at least three additional staff, Ceponis said.
Such business districts are just another way for the city to supply services, said Brent Goldfarb, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s school of business. And just like every other policy decision, there are “winners and losers.”
The areas under business improvement districts tend to look more attractive, Goldfarb said, and businesses usually thrive and property values increase.
On the other hand, these districts can also price people out with rent increases. The annual fees for the district could take a toll on businesses that were “barely making it” or if the clientele changes.
“It’s just a question of how deliberate is the City Council in addressing that,” Goldfarb said.
Eben Altmann, co-founder of B-more Kitchen, noticed some momentum in the York Road corridor as new businesses opened in the past few years. He hopes the district encourages this growth, particularly with traffic calming.
“More pedestrian-friendly design would go a long way towards helping those retail establishments that are on the corridor get additional foot traffic in the space,” he said.
The Senator Theater and Jerry’s Belvedere Tavern didn’t return calls for comment.
What do neighborhoods have to say about this?
Historically, the York Road corridor was thought of as a physical divide between affluent majority-white neighborhoods like Guilford and Homeland, and majority Black neighborhoods. The district, if managed accordingly, could bridge that gap, some hope. Or, as the plan says, “close the zipper.”
While these districts mainly focus on businesses, residents feel the impact, too. Dan Pontious, president of the Radnor-Winston Improvement Association, said the passing of the district was a “victory” and has some promise to yield results.
It “makes us a great corridor to live on,” Pontious, who co-chairs a housing and neighborhood revitalization committee in York Road Partnership, said.
Donna Blackwell, who grew up and still lives in Winston-Govans, said it’s going to take some work to ensure the improvement in the corridor is equitable. She sees more Black and brown people involved with the efforts and says neighborhoods on the east side are engaged.
“It’s got to be intentional,” said Blackwell, who co-chairs the committee with Pontious.
The key to ensure that neighborhoods in the west and east side of the corridor are treated equitably is to engage neighborhood associations, said Gia Grier, the executive director of Loyola Center for Community and Justice, home to the York Road Initiative.
There has been some work done on the corridor already, Grier said. They are working on improving the facades of businesses to make it more appealing. They also received a $675,000 federal grant through Sen. Chris Van Hollen’s office that will fund various projects in the corridor.