Friday, February 12, 2016

Baltimore comeback communities (part 2)

Introduction from yesterdays blog:

People around the globe now know Sandtown as a neighborhood in Baltimore that doesn't work very well. Sandtown joined the company of Watts, LA, the Bronx , NY and the Paris banlieues.

The problem is that many residents of the Baltimore metro area have bought into a notion that all of Baltimore is a failed place. Harford County even banned field trips to the City. Even worse, many City residents themselves wallow in despair about how bad things are. Not to fall into phony boosterism but to keep a clearer perspective, a list of Baltimore communities that work well may be in order to show that Baltimore is not only an example of failed urban policies and de-industrialization blight but that the City is well underway of re-inventing itself as a vibrant post-industrial city with a new kind of authenticity.

And I am not talking about the glitter in Harbor East or historically affluent communities of Roland Park, Homeland, Oakenshawe, Cedarcroft, Guilford and Mount Washington, or the more recently affluent neighborhoods of Federal Hill/Riverside, Otterbein, Fells Point, or Canton here (to name only a sampling) but about neigborhoods that 10 or 20 years ago were struggling, communities that have experienced a significant turn-around.

The approach is anecdotal and not scientific, it is incomplete and one can debate what really constitutes turnaround or comeback. Nevertheless, scouring through Trulia "heatmaps" of home values, Live Baltimore neighborhood descriptions and indicator maps compiled by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance (BNIA) at the University of Baltimore and my very own explorations, I came up with a list that became too long for one article.

Part 2 of the list of Baltimore's comeback neighborhoods, again I want to begin with a well integrated and diverse community:

Reservoir Hill

Maybe the most perennial come-back community is Reservoir Hill, an area that on first blush looks strikingly similar to Bolton Hill, its neighbor to the south. But the construction of I-83 and with it the separation and destruction of Mt Royal Avenue as a vital link to the south and north and the conversion of Druid Park Lake Drive into an on and off ramp to the JFX dealt a severe blow to the community of splendid large houses and apartment towers overlooking Druid Park and the lake. Now seems the time when this community finally turned the corner for good. Like Pigtown, Reservoir Hill represents the promise that a truly diverse and integrated community can be revitalized and succeed.


In 2002 an extensive community based workshop was held to invigorate development in the Jones Falls Valley. Too many old factory buildings sat fallow, too little was going on around the Cold Spring and Clipper Mill Stations of the Central Light Rail Line. Fourteen years later, the picture is of a decidedly different nature. The community of Woodberry had been concerned all along about the sanctity of their woods in the light of Loyola College's investments and MTA's idea to put a large parking lot where the gas tanks used to be south of Cold Spring Lane.

Today the Clipper Mill redevelopment has become a vibrant mixed use community with the destination restaurant Woodberry Kitchen, flourishing Gutierrez Studios, offices and new condos and homes. The former London Fog complex is a hub of activity with restaurants, offices and performance spaces and the area along Union Avenue up to Hampden is lined with breweries, pubs, the popular coffee shop Artefact, and the Union Mill redevelopment with teacher housing. The redevelopment of the Pepsi plant has been announced as well as a large transit oriented development west of the Coldspring light rail station. Mill # 1 has been developed as apartments by Tufaro and Mill #2 is on the drawing board. The area can also be reached by the completed Jones Falls trail currently connecting Cylburn Arboretum with downtown.

Photo: Baltimore SUN

Remington is also a community which didn't "turn" easily in spite of its location near Charles Street and just South of the Johns Hopkins campus. Between proud community old-timers and staples like the Dizz Restaurant too many vacant buildings and abandoned industrial sites had sneaked in over time; until Seawall Development did the teacher housing project called Millers Court with the Cafe Charmington. Or until Price Modern took shop in an old industrial complex on Sisson Street. Or until WC Harlan opened. Or the Single Carrot Theater opened in a renovated gas station or Walmart was defeated. There are probably as many reasons why Remington has become a popular destination as their are people, many fearing gentrification would threaten the old charm of the community.

Photo: Baltimore Brew
Harford Road, Lauraville

Lauraville, Hamilton, Montebello and Herring Run are part of a large swath of communities on the northeast of Baltimore stringing along the Alameda, Harford and Belair Roads which for the most part never fell into complete disrepair and never garnered the attention in the debate about Baltimore's future that Parks Heights or the communities to the east and west of downtown did. Streetscape efforts and charrettes trying to revive the commercial nodes along those roads resulted in a surprisingly successful rejuvenation of areas like Lauraville, with its farmers market and a slew of new restaurants and shops like the Red Canoe bookstore and cafe. The Hamilton area is currently embroiled in a debate if a Royal Farm mega gas station and convenience store is the right answer on a fledging "main street". (The area has a Main Street organization but is not participating in the National Main Street program).

Locust Point as seen from Silo Point (Tide Point on the right)
Photo: ArchPlan archive
Locust Point

Locust Point, a white working class community surrounded by railyards and port uses but also adjacent to the National Park of Fort McHenry, also never disintegrated or became dis-invested to the point that it appeared to be a lost cause. Yet, there were vacant houses here and there and many vacant industrial lots. The turning point came when developer Bill Struever created a vision of a "Digital Harbor" and acquired the vast vacant Procter and Gamble facility later known as Tide Point. Even though tenants wound up to be less digital after the dot-com bubble burst, the old soap buildings filled with many "creative" businesses and made Locust Point a new destination. Developer Pat Turner followed with the unique conversion of old grain silos into luxury apartments (Silo Point). Gentrification has become unstoppable after Under Armour took over from Bill Struever and began its expansion. Mc Henry row went up, it is an entire small town in itself. Currently Baltimore's possibly most high-end apartments outside Harbor East are rising at Bozzutto's new Anthem House complex on Fort Avenue.

Charles Village

Another community come-back, mostly driven by large anchors, is Charles Village. This area, too, never failed entirely but it got a large boost when Johns Hopkins started engaging in caring about the safety in the neighborhood east of its campus and actively promoted additional student housing and facilities east of Charles Street. The City re-built a whole section of Charles Street and active retail management led to a new bookstore and an entire set of restaurants along St Paul Street (Donna's Cafe just recently announced it will leave its anchor location there). Last year the final large lot between Charles and St Paul Streets, just south of 33rd Street, became the construction site for a large mixed use building with student housing, a project that Struever Bros never began before the firm became defunct. The new developer is developer Michael Beatty known from Harbor East and Harbor Point, a sure indication that the area is seen as a good investment. Anybody who would revisit the 33rd Street area near Charles would not recognize a thing, so much has changed here.

The list of turn-around communities could be continued and the stories about the individual neighborhoods could be fleshed out much better. But that would be an undertaking beyond the scope of a "Daily Blog". So there is nothing here about Brewers Hill or Butchers Hill. Nothing (yet) about partial come-backs like in Poppleton, Oliver, or Middle East.

Nevertheless, this partial listing of success stories should illustrate that Baltimore is certainly not the "basket case" that many suburbanites think it is. Quite to the contrary, it seems like that neighborhood stabilization, investment and infill marches steadily from the neighborhoods of strength towards those in desperate need of opportunity. That this march is driven by real estate investors and market forces is to be expected in a time when vast public investments, like those of the HOPE VI projects, are beyond the means of city agencies.

Creating "markets" where none were before is Baltimore's best hope. Fending off the negative consequences of "gentrification" requires communities to be organized, on-guard and equipped with the tools to hold their own. Most of the examples in my list show that win-win outcomes are possible, even if these outcomes in the past  relied too often on enlightened and socially conscious developers, on tax breaks and subsidies, and in some instances, on the self interest of large anchor institutions.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA


Trulia home price heat map
Live Baltimore
City Data
BNIA Community Profiles
Baltimore you are Marvelous Blog

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