Houses haunted by untapped potential

June 25, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

They're the million-dollar properties with the 10-cent price tags.

Look at 'em, up there on Druid Park Lake Drive: these poor, dumb, deserted, cancerous buildings, with ghosts clanking through their dusty interiors and windows smashed and trash lying in the weeds out front and, surrounding much of it, iron fences with barbed wire across the top.

Somebody ought to be ashamed - but who?

Try standing there, at Druid Park Lake Drive on either side of Linden Avenue, and imagine living on some of this property. You wake up each morning and gaze out your front window, and there's God's grandest handiwork: the magnificent Druid Hill Park, a sea of lush green in summer that converts to the gold standard each autumn; and, in the foreground, the gorgeous Druid Park Reservoir, its fountain gushing skyward and sunlight dappling across its surface.

These ought to be million-dollar showpieces. They ought to be mansions for the city's great achievers, luxury apartments for urban strivers, dream homes for those who have worked hard for the payoff, instead of these vacant wrecks looking like abused elderly, so forlorn that you want to avert your eyes.

"I agree, I agree," says Bruce Smith, spokesman for the city's Housing Authority, whose officials have to decide what to do with these buildings. "It's just a great, great location."

"Yes, wonderful property," says Jim Kelly, spokesman for the Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which took over the apartment buildings last year and relocated the Section 8 tenants who lived there at the tail-end of decades-long deterioration. HUD officials will work with city experts on future plans.

"Oh, yes, wonderful," says Dave Glover, who does his own daily study. He's standing there in the 900 block of Druid Park Lake Drive Tuesday morning, sweeping up debris. He's with Arco Maintenance, which the city hired to keep the area clean.

"You go upstairs in the winter," Glover says, gathering up some trash, "and you can see all the way over to Memorial Stadium. Then you look south, and you can see all the way to Cherry Hill. And this park, well..." His voice trails off. His look of pride finishes the sentence.

"But, I don't know," he says softly, looking around. "Today, people just don't know how to treat things. Things just give out."

They give out, and sometimes they're pushed. Around this Reservoir Hill neighborhood, plenty of people work hard to hold things together. Some streets retain their old charms. Drive around, and you see people with brooms. They're sweeping sidewalks, they're sweeping gutters. Sometimes, it seems they're trying to sweep the future away, when it comes with so much trouble.

Around here, the trouble carries familiar urban history from the past three decades: flight to suburbia, absentee landlords, housing falling apart, drug dealers moving in, all hope of real estate profits vanishing, bars along first-floor windows, families falling apart, guns and drugs holding entire blocks hostage, and generations of City Hall thinkers utterly clueless about how to turn it around.

And then, months ago, came the emptying of entire buildings on Druid Park Lake Drive, across the street from the glorious park.

"With these locations, it should be million-dollar properties," says Namsoo Dunbar. He should know. He owns 905 Druid Park Lake Drive, once a mansion with big columns out front but, in recent years, divided into six separate apartments.

Dunbar bought the property eight years ago for $225,000. For the past two years, he's tried to sell it. He'll take $189,000. He says he's had no crime problems - police say they've driven the drug dealers off the block, sent them back toward North Avenue - but he wants to sell for personal reasons.

But all investors immediately see what surrounds him. To the east, these three large apartment buildings, fabulously located but utterly empty. In the 800 block, across Linden Avenue, tentative plans are to tear down the building. In Dunbar's block, the city hopes to gut the big property at 901 Druid Park Lake Drive and reconstruct new apartments, and demolish the building at 903, next door to Dunbar.

To Dunbar's west are two terrific old mansions that should be grand homes - but, in the absence of private ownership, they've been taken over by the state. They're now the William Donald Schaefer Department of Juvenile Services buildings. Though the outsides are lovely, the interiors have a shabby, neglected feel.

What happens to all these properties? No one's certain. Despite the proximity to the park, the buildings are divided by Linden Avenue. Try driving down Linden toward North Avenue. It'll make your eyes bleed.

There are big apartment buildings, all empty now, windows smashed, boards over first-floor openings, weeds rampant, trash all over the place. Further toward North, there are countless rowhouses boarded up, more trash in the streets, and young men standing about at mid-day with no apparent destinations.

On Druid Park Lake Drive, you can see the effect of all this. Today the buildings are empty; tomorrow and tomorrow, they'll attempt something new. They're the million-dollar properties with the 10-cent price tags.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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