From the thorns comes a rose

Dan Rodricks

October 30, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Surely, somewhere along the way, someone else planted a rose on North Avenue.

Even in the three decades of decay that visited Baltimore's old north boundary, this former grand boulevard, someone must have tried to make a statement with a rose.

There was always life on North Avenue, even through its dismal decline.

Still, if such a rose existed, it was hard to see, and if there was hope for North Avenue, it was nearly impossible to sense. There were too many boarded-up properties, too many abandoned blocks, too many weeds, too much trash, too much of the old city left to the wind.

Even today, in post-renaissance Baltimore, the last thing you expect to see on North Avenue is a rose garden.

But Tom Dowling and Jay French had one planted, and they point to it with the pride of farmers who have proven they can grow something on fallow land.

"Investing in North Avenue was a personal decision," Tom Dowling says, as he gestures toward the rose garden, which sits on the west side of his and French's new development, Boundary Square. "This was not a flight of fancy. This was a decision we made to invest in the city. There's an urgent need for this kind of housing."

"There's a lot of complaining from some developers that this can't be done anymore," says French. "But there is a way to do it, and someone's got to do it. It's not easy money, but there is a way to do it."

"We'll get our returns, eventually," says Dowling, who operates Metropolitan Contracting Co. "It may be 10 or 20 years from now. But this was our choice . . . I grew up in Baltimore."

Boundary Square, the work of a group headed by Dowling and French, is an attractive, modern, light-rich apartment building from 303 to 327 E. North Ave., created out of a group of 13 once-elegant rowhouses that had been vacant for years. It's just a couple of blocks from Greenmount Avenue and an intersection long infamous for drug-related trouble. That's part of the reason developers with less pluck and resilience might have cringed at the concept of Boundary Square.

But what the development has going for it is proximity to Baltimore's school system headquarters and, within a few blocks, another promising residential development. It also has a citywide market desperate for good rental property.

"We've tried to create affordable housing for moderate-income people," French explains. "This is not the yuppie market and it's not the old Section 8 [subsidized] housing. The bulk of the rental market is somewhere between those two extremes. . . . They can afford it. They want something different from what they've had. They want air conditioning. They want appliances. They want secure parking with card-control access. They want to feel safe. We've tried to give them that."

At Boundary Square there are 67 apartments. The one-bedroom units rent for $376 a month and the two-bedroom units rent for $427. Thirty of the units are already occupied, and French's management company has received 11 more applications. He expects all of the apartments to be leased by year's end.

Dowling and French have been investing in the city for a decade or more. They're part of an increasingly small fraternity of investors who devote themselves to city projects and to cobbling together the kind of public-private deals that make something like Boundary Square happen.

Boundary Square is a result of a financial package that includes one of the last Urban Development Action Grants that went from the federal government into Baltimore. There was a time, before Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington, when the federal government made these grants to cities. Some of the hallmarks of the Schaefer-era renaissance were created with UDAGs.

For his deal on North Avenue, Tom Dowling knitted together a $913,000 UDAG, along with other federal funds, a grant from the state and loans from the city. The project cost $4 million.

French extends a lot of credit to Dowling for keeping the project going by making the complex financial arrangements. The days of the UDAG are gone, and developers have to find other ways -- low-income housing tax credits, for instance -- to pull these projects off, especially in high-risk areas that make conventional lenders skittish.

But before the money must come the developers, people like Tom Dowling and Jay French, willing to plant rose gardens where you don't expect to find them.

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