Otterbein: Charming respite in city's bustle Jewel of Baltimore's urban homesteading effort still shines

Neighbors; Neighborhood Profile: Otterbein

October 11, 1998|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The inscription on the pink granite monument in Homesteader Park reads, "a tribute to the homesteaders/creators of the Otterbein community 1975-1988."

Though it may be hard to imagine, those words are a reminder that this community of beautiful tree-lined streets and handsome rowhouses was on the verge of condemnation by the city. Saved by Baltimore's renowned urban homesteading program, it's now one of the most desirable downtown neighborhoods.

"Otterbein is a real neighborhood," said Mary Gorman, a past president of the Otterbein Community Association. "When someone's sick, a meal shows up at their door."

It's one of the last surviving neighborhoods in the center of the original city and also one of the best-preserved, with rowhouses dating from the early 1800s to the 1880s.

The residents understand the historic importance of Otterbein. As members of a Baltimore City Historic District, property owners have to go before an architectural review board to make any exterior changes to their homes.

"Most comply with the architectural guidelines," said George Robbins, a member of the board. "Everyone absolutely knows the positive effect the historic district has on property values." Those values run from about $145,000 to $370,000 -- the latter for a large rowhouse with an elevator and nanny's room.

The neighborhood is a quiet enclave surrounded by the bustle of the city, with the Convention Center and Conway Street on its north, Henrietta Street on the south, Camden Yards on its western border and Light Street to the east.

Living in the heart of the city allows Otterbein's residents an enviable commute: They can walk to work in downtown Baltimore or walk two blocks to catch the MARC train to Washington. Leisure time can be spent at nearby Harborplace or the stadiums at Camden Yards, just a five-minute walk away. There's no worrying about finding a parking place.

But the Otterbein community worries about others looking for parking on its streets. Outsider parking had always been a nuisance, but it was the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards that brought the biggest change.

"Parking was impossible until the city set restrictions preventing parking during stadium events," said Robbins. Most residents believe the city is doing a competent job of towing offenders on game days. "They're about 70 percent to 80 percent effective," said Charles Jantho, who has owned a house on Welcome Alley since 1988.

When asked about the noise from the stadium two blocks away, most Otterbein residents give the same reply Ednor Gardens residents did when Memorial Stadium was in use: They don't notice it. The B & O warehouse helps by acting as a buffer between them and the stadium.

"It's not a direct sound; it's blocked by the warehouse. And by the time it gets to us, it isn't that great," Robbins said. "It's only when there's a home run and huge cheering, we get a delayed burst of noise."

While the Oriole games haven't produced any real problems, residents say, the opening of the Ravens' new stadium has.

"Football games are the worst," said Chuck Goetz, a resident on South Sharp Street. He said he had to clean up after game-goers after a recent Ravens game.

But, while living next to the stadiums has produced a few beer cans on his sidewalk, Goetz says, there's never been any rowdy behavior. What has enraged Otterbein residents lately is the constant stream of helicopters and airplanes pulling advertising banners during Ravens games on Sunday.

Aside from all the things to do in the city that are just minutes away, the community has its own neighborhood activities, such as concerts in its small parks and its annual Halloween party. "We also have a holiday house tour," Gorman said.

Among the most charming aspects of Otterbein are its vest-pocket parks cared for on a volunteer basis by the neighborhood. "I do some weeding and planting and I paid for some of the trees," said Jantho, whose house is next door to Homesteader Park. The Federal Reserve Building on South Sharp Street, which also serves as a buffer between Otterbein and Oriole Park, lets the community use its park as well. Gardening seems to be a passion for most of the community, as most Otterbein homes have well-kept gardens in the rear.

However, not all of Otterbein is made up of original housing. There is some in-fill rowhouse development designed to complement the old in materials and scale. All the new rowhouses have off-street parking or individual garages built into the units. Most of the houses in the community are owner-occupied, but there are also some buildings that contain rentals and condominiums.

Stores that once occupied the first floors of the corner buildings have been converted into residences as well.

According to Robbins, who has sold many houses in the area as a real estate agent, most of the residents are professionals or business people who work nearby. Many are couples or empty-nesters who have moved to Otterbein from areas such as Roland Park to enjoy downtown living.

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