Close-in charmer, needs loving care


Howard Park offers easy prices, and some challenges

May 16, 1999|By Charles Belfoure | Charles Belfoure,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many of the first homes built in Howard Park in the early 1900s were bungalows and cottages. They were priced for a buyer who wanted to move from a rowhouse, but couldn't afford one of the large houses in Roland Park or Forest Park. Today, Howard Park is still a community where homeownership is very affordable.

"Buyers can get a spacious single-family home and a convenient location for a moderate price," said Katy Grove of O'Conor, Piper and Flynn ERA's Owings Mills office.

The houses, most of which are on eighth-acre lots, range in price from $65,000 for a Cape Cod to $100,000 for a turn-of-the-century cottage.

One pleasant thing about Howard Park is that it backs against Hillsdale Park, home of the Forest Park Golf Course, lending a quiet, sylvan feel to the community. Residents who live south of Gwynn Oak Avenue can easily walk to the end of their block and be in the park. Powder Mill Park -- at the western end of Howard Park at the city line -- is another green space that residents use.

Howard Park has been a stable community, due to a large percentage of longtime homeowners and two active community associations. It shows how suburban living can succeed inside the city line, and how even a strong neighborhood can be confronted by problems that it can't solve by itself.

To Tracy Hamm, president of the Howard Park Community Activities Association, houses and streets aren't the only things that define a neighborhood. Howard Park needs support facilities that only the city can provide.

"We really need a recreational facility or a library," Hamm said. "Kids around here are looking for something to do," added Glord McGuire, a member of the association who moved to Howard Park in 1968.

Absentee landlords

Another concern for homeowners in Howard Park, according to Jim French, a Baltimore housing planner, is "the wood-frame-house problem."

The predominant Howard Park style is the two-story bungalow with a deep porch covering the entire front of the house. Compact in size, they are easy for homeowners to maintain. However, the neighborhood also has some large, three-story wood-frame homes.

These don't lend themselves to a single-family lifestyle anymore and are often purchased by investors who divide the space into apartments. With as many as six mailboxes at the front door, such multifamily homes are easy to spot.

"This has brought a lot of problems to the neighborhood," Hamm said. The houses are owned by absentee landlords who often let them deteriorate.

"They just don't stay on top of it," McGuire said.

Driving the streets of Howard Park, one can easily tell the rental properties from the owner-occupied ones by the condition of the house and yard.

Many avoid commercial area

While the community itself is stable, its neighboring business district is having problems. Many residents avoid Gwynn Oak Junction, the commercial area at Liberty Heights and Gwynn Oak Avenue.

"They don't feel comfortable going up there," Hamm explained.

The intersection has seen better days; some storefronts are vacant or have a ramshackle look. The former art deco Ambassador movie theater, which dominates the area, is for sale.

"The loitering and the drugs have stopped people from coming," said Ruth Binsky, owner of Sparkle One Hour Cleaners.

Most Howard Park residents shop in Baltimore County, according to Hamm.

Michael E. Johnson of the Department of Housing and Community Development's business assistance group will be working with merchants to improve store facades and street lighting.

"We'll be trying to help them as much as we can," Johnson said. The farmers' market is the Junction's most successful venture, and HCD has plans to expand it.

Johnson agrees that drugs are the business community's No. 1 complaint. "A lot of generational customers have gotten run off," he says. The Ambassador is an important building in the area and its reuse could be key to the success of the Junction.

Johnson will be working to find a new use for the old theater, which has had several tenants since it closed in 1968, including a dance hall. "I'd like to see a lot of small incubator businesses in there," he said.

89-unit housing project

One project at Gwynn Oak Junction should help to revitalize the area.

The old Howard Park Elementary School, vacant for many years on Liberty Heights, is about to be converted into the Oaks at Liberty, an 89-unit housing project for the elderly, which is being done by a partnership consisting of the Forest Park Senior Center, Savannah Development and Penrose Properties of New Jersey.

"Seniors will move into the units, freeing up housing for younger families," said Betty Jean Murphy of Savannah Development.

The senior center abuts the school on its west side and is to become the activity center for the Oaks.

The project will promote inter-generational activity in the community, said John Saunders, president of the board of directors of the Forest Park Senior Center who, with his partners, is finalizing the selection of the general contractor.

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