Bustling diversity reflects salty charm

NEIGHBORHOOD PROFILE

November 07, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Tourists come to Fells Point for a taste of 18th- and 19th-century splendor. Diners come to sample delicacies at the many restaurants. Party people come, of course, for the lively bars.

But when homebuyers come, they get a less-refined slice of life.

"A lot of people thought they were buying into Williamsburg and thought they were getting a quaint, museum-like atmosphere," ex-seaman Steven Bunker said. "Most people go to the gentrified area. That is not Fells Point. There's a Fells Point facade, and there's the real Fells Point behind it."

Along with high-paid professionals are working-class people and poor families, said Mr. Bunker, a past president of the Owners, Renters and Residents Association of Fells Point, who owns a shop there that sells nautical remnants such as old anchors and chains.

Mr. Bunker, 47, who moved here 17 years ago, said he prefers the diversity but has encountered people who have been disappointed. Instead of finding a trendy yuppie haven, homebuyers learn that the area has a mix of people that cuts across virtually all economic levels.

Mr. Bunker once ran a community newspaper, The Fells Point Newsletter, and counted people of 35 nationalities. On a given block, he said, one might find a Ukrainian living next door to a Hispanic, across the street from a Jamaican or a Lumbee Indian.

Fells Point was settled in 1726 and laid out by William Fell, a ship carpenter, in 1763. It became a major shipbuilding center in the 1760s, when wharves and warehouses were erected there. It is bounded, roughly, by the Northwest Harbor and Gough, Caroline and Castle streets.

"It is the part of the city that one can identify closely to a European city," said Jakob Metz, a real estate agent at O'Conor, Piper & Flynn. He notes that people live within walking distance to shops and other businesses.

Best-selling author Martha Grimes described Fells Point in her recent novel, "The Horse You Came In On," which was named for an area tavern:

"Despite the obvious quaintness in danger of sliding into chic, Fells Point was a genuine period piece," she wrote. "Left to itself for over two hundred years, it was evidently becoming trendy, but it still kept the appearance of its eighteenth-century origins. It had about it a pleasant sort of scruffiness that the galleries and shops hadn't managed to glamorize or suppress."

Mr. Metz said the real estate market in Fells Point has been slow for the past two to three years but that there are signs of a resurgence.

Vincent P. Lowe, of Town & Country Real Estate's office on the community's border, said homes have sold much slower in Fells Point than in neighboring Canton and Highlandtown because they are more expensive here.

"A lot of young professionals stayed put during the recession," he said. "And they're just beginning to come back again."

And real estate agents say the condominium market has been extremely weak. For example, Henderson's Wharf was a project designed to convert a warehouse into condos. But only 12 of the 137 units were sold before another investor bought the property and marketed it as expensive apartments and a bed-and-breakfast.

In recent years, residents have fought development that threatened to dot the waterfront with high-rise condos and other residential construction. Old warehouses have been converted into luxury apartment buildings and new townhouses have sprung up.

After a long dispute, the community has reached a compromise with AlliedSignal Inc., which plans to transform its former chromium ore-processing plant into a waterfront community. The project is by far the biggest in the area and would drastically change the look of Fells Point.

About 8,460 people live in the Fells Point area, according to the fTC Census. The AlliedSignal plan could add another 400 residents and erect buildings as high as 180 feet, about 16 stories.

AlliedSignal's project includes plans for a 3,000- to 4,000-seat performing arts center and up to 2 million square feet of offices, residences and shops, with an estimated value of $200 million or more, on 27.4 acres near Philpot and Wills streets.

There also would be a promenade along the waterfront, garages for 2,600 cars, 9.6 acres of parks and a grid of new streets and sidewalks.

Residents say buildings would be taller than they would prefer, but the project is more acceptable than an earlier proposal that called for even taller builders. In addition, the project now would be built on a peninsula away from the community's core.

Mr. Metz, the real estate agent, said the AlliedSignal project and development of Inner Harbor East would benefit Fells Point. Inner Harbor East would connect Fells Point to Little Italy and downtown while eliminating an unsightly stretch west of the community, he said.

Thomas J. Durel's house was built in 1782, but he didn't know it until he noticed passers-by looking at a book and pointing toward his home. He later learned that his home was built by a man who bought the property from William Fell and that his residence is listed in a book of historic buildings.

FELLS POINT

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 5 minutes

Commuting time to Washington: 45 minutes

Public Schools: General Wolfe Elementary, Lombard Middle. , Southern High and Patterson High

Shopping: Broadway Market, stores and antiques shops along Fleet Street, Aliceanna Street and Eastern Avenue

Nearest mall: Eastpoint Mall, about four miles east on Eastern Avenue.

Points of interest: Robert Long House, Thames Point Park, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, Recreation Pier, Tomb of four Fell family members at 1607 Shakespeare St.

Average price of single-family home: $69,770 (year to date)

Zip Code: 21231

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