Measuring city's rebound block by newly hot block

June 18, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE REAL ESTATE notice in the newspaper said the rowhouse was located in Canton and sold for $120,000, but the place turned out to be two doors away from Eastern Avenue and the heart of Patterson Park. A sense of deflation ensued; we felt sorry for Patterson Park. When did such a neighborhood, dear to any city dweller's heart, start calling itself Canton? It felt like the owner's ad had attempted to disguise his home's very own birthright.

Patterson Park is not Canton, somebody said. The real estate agent just shrugged. A sign of the times, she said. Patterson Park is showing some wonderful new signs of life. But, when you advertise a house, you go with what's hot. And Canton is still hot, she said - although probably no longer the hottest neighborhood in town.

She pointed west, toward Fells Point and Federal Hill and Locust Point. To find a house in Locust Point, which hasn't seen a new housing development in half a century, people check the obituary notices and swarm like vultures.

Cheers went up last week - among house hunters - when Struever Rouse Homes announced plans to build about 35 townhouses in Locust Point - at, minimum, $180,000 each, which is about double what Locust Point homes have been going for.

For townhouses - which, in a simpler time, we called rowhouses.

For $180,000 - which, in a simpler time, we called highway robbery.

But it's the nature of the modern housing market, and, make no mistake about this, the nature of change in the city of Baltimore.

Everybody knows about the city's population loss over the last decade and the last half-century. Fifty years ago, the population was 900,000. Five years ago, it was 689,000. Last year, 632,000.

But walk through any waterfront neighborhood and you hear the sound of hammers and drills putting new life into rickety old housing. Talk to real estate agents and hear the sound of optimism. Young people are moving in, they say, and they have money to spend, and they do not want the blandness of suburbia.

On Canton's Boston Street the other night, at the Bay Cafe, there was a political fund-raiser for state Sen. Thomas Bromwell. Maybe 1,500 people jammed the place, at $150 a head, including Mayor Martin O'Malley.

"Did you see the new analysis by Moody's?" he asked, referring to the investors service.

The report, 13 pages of charts, figures and financial analyses, takes full account of the city's troubles - but it is full of promise, as well.

"The city has faced significant challenges," the report notes, "particularly population loss and tax base erosion.

"Moody's anticipates, however, that city initiatives will lessen and/or reverse these negative trends, particularly those programs aimed at job growth and retention, downtown residential development, commercial development throughout the city, and crime reduction."

The last has been an obsession of this mayor's. The homicides continue - though, as Moody's notes, since 1995, the city's total crime has dropped 24 percent.

From that rowhouse in Patterson Park (disguised as Canton) the other day, the real estate agent steered her car through the Inner Harbor area toward Federal Hill. All traffic sputtered and stopped around Light and Pratt streets. Who could move in such crowds?

As the new Moody's analysis points out, the city's tourism has risen 43 percent in the last five years, and tourist spending has jumped 77 percent in that time.

"With upcoming growth in the hotel sector," Moody's declares, "the $3 billion spent by tourists in 1998 will most likely increase."

But it's not just tourist money. Five years ago, there was a troubling 17.5 percent vacancy rate in downtown class A office space. It's now down to 11 percent, the best in a decade. Over five years, says Moody's, the city had the second-fastest per capita personal income growth rate in the state and "healthy increases in income tax revenues ... indicate that personal income is continuing to rise in the city." Thirty years ago, home ownership was 44 percent. It's now 56 percent.

The real estate agent drove along Key Highway. On a Federal Hill bluff overlooking the harbor south of the Maryland Science Center, there were balconies, attached to new condominiums. They did not look too big from the outside. No, the agent said, but the prices are six figures, and they start with twos and threes.

Some of us drove out to The Avenue in White Marsh. It is a shopping center pretending to be something else. It is pretending, in look and name, to be a charming 1950s neighborhood - America in nostalgic hindsight - that just happens to be nothing but commercial enterprises. It's a smart idea.

This weekend, we are told, The Avenue will be on full police alert. There is a movie called "Gone in 60 Seconds," starring Nicolas Cage, which is about stealing cars. The movie's a hit. But police are worried that life will imitate art and moviegoers will try to do what Cage does. Thus, they have increased patrols at The Avenue. Who knows what today's crazy kids might do?

The Avenue is located in Baltimore County.

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