White-marble bargain on the park


Highlandtown is vibrant, good value, close to everything

May 30, 1999|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Kini Collins decided that life in the suburbs was no longer for her, she decided to look to the city for a place to call home. What she found was Highlandtown.

"I was living in Columbia and wanted to move into the city," said Collins, who moved into her rehabbed rowhouse in March.

"There were a lot of artists and a lot of people I know living here, and I wanted to be close to them. There's an exciting, great atmosphere around here. I also have a dog and I wanted to be near the park. I love the park."

The historic city neighborhood, known for generations for its food and shopping, is loosely considered the area bordered by Baltimore Street to the north, Linwood Street to the west, Eastern Avenue to the south and Haven Street to the east. Two- and three-story brick and Formstone houses with white marble steps line the streets.

Among the attributes drawing people such as Collins to Highlandtown is its convenience to Canton, Fells Point, Patterson Park and downtown. With an average price of just over $41,000, Highlandtown houses don't command the prices found in other neighborhoods.

"That ZIP code has gone through some real ups and downs; Highlandtown has become a very healthy real estate market again," said Patrick T. Welsh, sales manager for the Dundalk office of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA.

"The early '80s was the last boom there. Then, in the early and mid-'90s, it became sluggish.

"It's getting hot again. It's a welcome surprise and it's a good value. You get a lot of square footage for the price; that's what is attracting people there."

There are a number of programs aimed at attracting homebuyers to the area. One of the most notable is the home-value guarantee.

Started in January by Baltimore's Abell Foundation, the program guarantees homeowners that their property values will not decrease. Current homeowners and those who buy in the specified area, which includes Highlandtown, are eligible.

The program guarantees that a participant will be reimbursed if the home sells for less than the appraised value, as long as the selling price is reasonable. Homeowners must agree to live in the house at least five years and pay an annual fee of about $150.

Even as the program is attracting new homeowners, current owners are also signing up.

"I signed up for the home-value guarantee," said Bob Meagher, who grew up in Highlandtown and moved back about 10 years ago after raising a family in the Baltimore County.

"I feel that I won't need to use it, but it's like money in the bank. If something does turn bad, I can cash in and leave.

"That's a good feeling to have."

Another program, initiated by the Patterson Park Community Development Corp. (PPCDC) in conjunction with the Southeast Baltimore Catholic Academy, pays for up to nine years of tuition at one of the five participating schools.

To qualify, the homeowner must purchase the home from the PPCDC.

"We are starting to sell houses like crazy," said Ed Rutkowski, PPCDC director. "Just from the home-value guarantee alone, we know people are buying because of it. We are about to sell our 20th house in 2 1/2 years. It's getting to be quite a large-scale operation.

"And we don't sell the ordinary rowhouse. In the past year, a lot of artists have been getting custom-designed homes."

To help prospective buyers sort through the various programs is the Patterson Park Neighborhood Initiative (PPNI), a nonprofit organization that provides home-ownership counseling.

"As a counselor, I am really encouraging the Highlandtown neighborhood; Highlandtown mirrors what Canton was five years ago," said Will Backstrom, home-ownership coordinator for the PPNI.

"We feel very confident about the real estate market over there. The heat from Canton has spilled over."

The development of Highlandtown as a neighborhood dates to the late 1860s and an Irish immigrant named Thomas McGuiness, who laid out the neighborhood under the direction of the Philadelphia Land Co., which owned the property.

In 1870, residents objecting to the original name of the community, Snake Hill, changed it to Highlandtown. By 1881, Highlandtown had 644 residents.

In 1918, the city moved the eastern boundary line from East Avenue to the current city line. And by the 1920s Highlandtown had begun to grow into a major commercial district, one of only two shopping areas in the city (the other being Hampden) that did not have a market at its core.

The industry in the area included breweries, slaughterhouses and packing houses, which attracted many immigrants. The ethnic diversity is still evident today, as the area continues to attract people of different ethnic backgrounds.

"More and more, it's becoming an America in the miniature," said the Rev. Louigi Esposito, or Father Lou, as he is known. Esposito has served as the priest for Our Lady of Pompeii since 1964.

"There is a strong community spirit in the neighborhood. We have some of the best leaders in the area and we are all working together to make Highlandtown better," Esposito said.

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