Developers offer plans for vacant lot in Pigtown Building Community

January 16, 1994|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

Since the November night seven years ago when fire consumed the old Koppers Co. warehouse in Pigtown and ripped through nearby homes, the former industrial site has sat fenced in, mostly vacant and overgrown, littered with splintered boards, rotting mattresses and the gray, metal ruins of a factory.

Bill Kirk would walk his dog nearby, just a block from the Scott Street "dollar house" he bought and renovated in 1980. He would shake his head over the weeds shooting through cracked sidewalks, bottles smashed against brick walls, kids slipping in and out of vacant buildings.

For Mr. Kirk and others in the mainly blue-collar community in Southwest Baltimore, hope for renewal has always been linked to the prospect of new homes sprouting on the city-owned 8-acre site. And now, three developers are scrambling to make that happen.

Ryland Group Inc., the nation's third-largest homebuilder; Lise Worthington of Worthington Properties, a local builder with neighborhood roots; and Rodwell Industries Inc. of Washington are competing for the right to build brick-front townhouses on one of the city's last large open parcels -- bounded by McHenry, Clifford, Poppleton and Scott streets.

Proposals range in scope from 113 to 166 two- or three-bedroom, two- or three-story homes, as well as parking for Washington Boulevard shops.

Residents who have lobbied for years to clear and rebuild what they say has become an eyesore say new homes could infuse a depressed commercial district along Washington Boulevard with new customers and strengthen the neighborhood's fractured political voice. But they also fear that an exclusive, walled-in community could force values outside the site down rather than up.

"We see Koppers as part of a solution to the normal set of problems that exist in a neighborhood on the edge of the poverty line," said Scott Greenbaum, a resident of Poppleton Street bordering the site -- where more and more of the deteriorating rental homes have been sold and fixed up. "If this is done wrong, it could knock the whole community down the stairs a couple of steps, rather than digging it out."

City officials acquired the lot a year ago for for-sale housing that would blend into a neighborhood of brick and Formstone rowhouses and draw middle-income residents to the city. Because the new homes should be priced in the $100,000 range, homebuyers could apply for settlement-expense loans through a program the city started last year, said David Elam, development director for the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Officials tout the area's access to downtown and to I-95 and the proximity to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the B&O Museum. As the University of Maryland professional schools expand, officials expect the market for new homes in Southwest Baltimore to grow.

"We're looking at building something new and meeting the buying market that wants new product," Mr. Elam said. "The housing market is coming back, and what we want to do is time this in a manner so the project can take advantage of rates while they're low."

Ms. Worthington, a Washington Boulevard resident who has renovated more than three dozen neighborhood homes and built 10 homes, has proposed developing 141 two-story, three-bedroom townhouses with garages, built by Harkins nTC Builders of Silver Spring. She said she would create a charitable trust of at least $100,000 from home sales to go toward community improvements.

Ryland, a suburban builder that is breaking into the urban market with a new design of 42 townhouses at Montgomery Square in Federal Hill, has teamed with Otis Warren, a commercial and residential developer, in proposing 113 "historic" homes of two or three bedrooms and two and three stories.

Rodwell Industries has proposed building 166 homes.

The city expects to expand on the success of other redevelopment projects in the neighborhood, which has been known as Pigtown since days when pigs were herded through the streets to slaughter.

The Census Bureau listed the median price of a home as $31,600 in 1990, and homes have sold in the $40,000-to-$60,000 range. Newer or renovated homes have sold for $90,000 or more.

Forty-five townhouses at Roundhouse Square, built on Pratt Street in 1988, sold from $95,000 to $115,000. Ms. Worthington's new two-bedroom homes at Mount Clare Square on West Pratt Street have been selling for $85,000 to $95,000.

Residents point to those projects and others -- developer Bettyjean Murphy's transformation of the former Barrister Charles Carroll School No. 34 into 32 affordable condominiums last year -- and say redevelopment of Koppers will continue a cycle of renewal.

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