The rowhouse is reborn in Sandtown

A new rehab project shows how flexible and marketable Baltimore's basic housing can be.


October 15, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

If two heads are better than one, why not two homes? That's the idea behind a promising experiment in affordable housing that just opened in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood.

Instead of spending thousands of dollars to restore narrow rowhouses that are too small to be readily marketable, a nonprofit development group decided to combine two adjacent dwellings and create a series of "double-wides" without substantially altering their appearance from the street. The community gets its dilapidated buildings fixed up; prospective buyers get two houses for (nearly) the price of one.

This twofer concept is an impressive model for rejuvenating depopulated urban areas without tearing down valuable architecture. It already has become a powerful symbol of renewal in Sandtown. It also demonstrates the amazing capacity of the traditional Baltimore rowhouse to adapt to changing times and economic conditions.

"It honors the history of Sandtown and leads the way to a new community around it," said Anna-Maria White, senior project manager for Enterprise Homes, part of the development team.

The consolidated housing can be seen as part of a national trend in which builders of affordable housing are moving away from a "scattered site" approach and focusing on projects that have enough critical mass to make a difference from the day the first resident moves in.

The conventional wisdom in Baltimore has been that it's good enough to rehab one house at a time, even though the properties may be scattered throughout a given block. But after the work is completed, it sometimes can be difficult to tell which buildings were renovated and which still need attention. In an era of "undercrowding," Baltimore's civic leaders are finding that it makes sense to rebuild communities block by block whenever possible, rather than house by house.

"We need to work in bigger chunks," said Jonathan Lange, lead organizer for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), another partner in the development team. "The thing about rehabbing buildings [at this scale] is that it automatically creates a safe block."

300 homes planned

The twofers are part of a $30 million development called Sandtown Winchester Square, designed to create about 300 new and rehabilitated residences in one of Baltimore's most depressed areas.

The $3 million first phase, which opened in late August, contains 36 renovated three- and four-bedroom rowhouses on both sides of the 1100 block of North Calhoun Street in West Baltimore. The developer is BUILD-Enterprise Nehemiah Development Corp., a joint venture of BUILD, a 23-year-old organization of congregations, businesses and schools, and the Enterprise Foundation of Columbia, the parent of Enterprise Homes.

The master planner and urban designer was Ray Gindroz of Urban Design Associates, a Pittsburgh-based firm that has gained national prominence for its innovative approach to low-income housing. This is one of its first projects in the Baltimore area. The local design-build team that carried out the renovation work included David H. Gleason and Associates, the architect, and a joint venture of Southway Builders and Chris McCoy Framing, the contractor.

On the east side of Calhoun Street, 24 brick two-story rowhouses were restored conventionally. But on the west side of the street, 24 rowhouses were reconfigured to create 12 residences, each made of two houses combined into one.

From the street, the only hint that the houses were combined is that every other set of marble steps has been removed, and every other front door has been turned into a window. Otherwise, the brick facades appear the way they did when they were constructed in the 1880s.

The houses on the east side are 13 feet wide and three rooms deep and contain about 1,100 square feet of space, making them suitable for a conventional renovation. But the houses on the west side were not quite as deep, averaging about 900 square feet, and the development team feared that was not enough space to attract buyers.

Urban Design Associates recommended combining the narrow west side houses. By removing one set of internal stairs, one kitchen and other redundant features, including some narrow additions in the rear, the designers came up with floor plans that gave residents a surprising amount of space on both levels, and plenty of light. For zoning purposes, BUILD-Enterprise got the old property lines redrawn and a new type of rowhouse was born.

Gindroz said it's the only example that he knows of in which rowhouses have been consolidated this way for this price range. In most cases, he explained, homebuilders ask designers to put the maximum number of houses on a given site.

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