Developers bringing inner-city block back to life

August 22, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

In the 1500 block of Argyle Ave., the walls and roofs of several rowhouses have collapsed, weeds shoot from cracks in buckling sidewalks and vandals have smashed windows or sprayed graffiti on boarded-up holes.

William and Margaret Domneys can't wait to move in.

The Baltimore couple is among the urban pioneers staking their futures on a deteriorating and mostly vacant inner-city block on the rebound. The Domneys' dream of finally owning a home has come true thanks to a partnership between Baltimore officials and developers on a mission to rehabilitate whole neighborhoods.

L. Paul Bryant and Alexander Sotir, who built condominiums in the Lafayette Square neighborhood in 1990 and 1991, have embarked on a venture to remake a block in Upton by renovating 21 three-story rowhouses, nearly the entire block. Federal subsidies allow the Lafayette Square Inc. partners to sell the homes for $35,500. A state financing program will make loans at 5 percent available to qualified buyers.

The project will allow the Domneys to come home to a neighborhood where both grew up and where they raised three children before a fire forced them out five years ago.

"You work hard all your life and want to be able to sit back and say this is mine. They'll build the neighborhood up the way it used to be. I know it's going to be close-knit," Margaret Domneys said Thursday, surveying the two homes completed so far, with clean white steps and wrought iron railings, smooth red brick fronts, wall-to-wall carpeting and new kitchen cabinets. The couple, a Social Security annex supervisor and a dietary aid making less than $30,000 a year, will be able to pay less for monthly mortgage payments than they do for rent.

The project gives young people, such as waitress April Cawthorne, 22, a chance at owning a home much sooner than they could have otherwise. Ms. Cawthorne, who hopes to buy a home on Argyle Avenue, stopped by to see the street Thursday, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other city officials toured the first completed homes.

Maria Felton, 21, who grew up and still lives in one of the few occupied homes, remembers when families filled the block and children played on the street.

That was before residents began leaving one by one, before rain seeped in the leaking, neglected roofs and rotted the walls and floors, before vandals and rats claimed the properties as their own.

Mr. Bryant, president of Baldwin Development Corp., and Mr. Sotir, president of Sotir Construction Co., see all that changing soon, as the first homebuyers prepare to move in. Ten people already have signed sales contracts.

The $1.2 million rehabilitation takes steps to start solving inner-city problems, Mr. Bryant says. A lifelong Baltimore resident who lives in Lafayette Square, he recalled the day 10 years ago when he vowed to work toward solutions. He was driving his mother to church, and she shook her head over the crowds of aimless young men standing on the corner.

"You could see it in their faces, the hopelessness and despair," said Mr. Bryant, who said he believes that people moving back in and owning homes will show others they can do the same.

The Lafayette partnership, which competed with other developers to purchase and redevelop the city-acquired properties, can construct homes and offer them for $35,500 with the help of $590,000 in federal Home Investment Partnership Program funds and a $290,000 city-administered Community Development Block Grant. American National Bank has financed the construction.

Prospective homeowners with maximum family incomes of $27,650 can apply for 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage loans at 5 percent through the state Community Development Administration, which has $710,000 available for such loans, said Carol Shallenberger, the CDA's deputy director for homeownership programs.

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