Blight along major artery tests city's housing pledge

2 Calvert St. blocks pose problem of long standing

May 28, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

It's the rot before the glitter - two blighted blocks on North Calvert Street at the gateway to the eclectic and improving community of Charles Village and the upscale neighborhoods of Guilford and Homeland.

The blocks on the major one-way commuter route north from downtown Baltimore contain mostly bricked and boarded buildings, broken up by a vacant patch where four burned-out rowhouses once stood, and just one homeowner. The city's public housing agency owns nearly half the properties, many of which are vacant.

Long deteriorating, the 2100 and 2200 blocks are garnering attention - from foundations, community groups and now the city - not just for their condition but their location.

"We've been on Calvert Street's case for years," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which financed a study on revitalizing a 10-block area south of Charles Village centered on the 2100 and 2200 blocks. "It's a very visible corridor, and it has a lot of problems."

That study, completed in the fall, called for demolition and new construction in the 2100 block and rehabilitation in the 2200 block. It has become the catalyst for a fledgling effort to reclaim that stretch.

Both the Charles Village Community Benefits District and the city are earmarking money to shore up the area.

The benefits district, which provides safety, sanitation and other services to local neighborhoods, plans to spend $175,000 in state money on Calvert Street between 20th and 25th streets and has lined up a nonprofit developer to do construction work.

For its part, city officials expect to budget about $600,000 for the fiscal years that begin in July 2003 and July 2004 to help revamp the two blocks.

To speed the effort, the city has placed a handful of tax-delinquent properties on the two blocks, with liens totaling about $75,000, into a special summer tax sale, the first step in getting the titles into the hands of the city or a developer.

"The Calvert Street corridor is a priority for us because it's such a heavily traveled area," said JoAnn Copes, assistant housing commissioner.

Whether the efforts to eradicate the blight on Calvert Street above North Avenue succeed will be a perceptible test of Project 5000, Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to gain control of more than a third of the city's 14,000 abandoned properties for open space or new or rehabbed housing.

They will also be a test of the city Housing Authority's pledge to deal with its hundreds of vacant, scattered-site rental units that are blighting communities throughout the city, by renovating the buildings itself, giving them to neighborhood groups or demolishing them and turning the land over to private developers.

No one is more aware of the need for improvements than the few residents who remain on the blocks. In the 2100 block, there are just three occupied buildings, a rowhouse at each end subdivided into apartments and a bail bondsman's office. About half of the buildings in the 2200 block are occupied with a single-homeowner and several renters.

Danielle Hatch, 32, moved into an apartment in the rowhouse at the north end of the 2100 block in January with her two children, ages 4 and 2, because "it was the only place I could find at the time."

Hatch says people drop trash through a gap in a closed-off basement window of a vacant Housing Authority building next door, attracting rats and presenting a danger to her children. "When my kids come out to play, they go right to that hole," she said.

In the 2200 block, Shirley Winn says she pays $275 a month rent for a first-floor apartment in a building where the unsecured front door opens with the slightest push and the front hallway sports a gaping hole. "I'm trying to find another place right now," said Winn, who has two children, ages 15 and 12.

Abandoned properties have for decades bedeviled the 2100 and 2200 blocks of N. Calvert St., part of the area residents now call Old Goucher because it was the first home of Goucher College.

Located too far from the Johns Hopkins University to benefit from its presence, and lacking the columned porches that make so many rowhouses to the north so attractive, the blocks were among many citywide that became vacant as the city's population fell.

The city took control of several properties in the blocks in the mid-1970s when their owners failed to pay their taxes, land records show.

The city turned the properties over to the Housing Authority as part of a program to give public housing tenants a chance to live outside the projects and to attempt to stabilize neighborhoods by putting residents in vacant homes.

In 1980, the city razed all the dilapidated properties on the east side of the 2200 block and turned the parcel into a park and playground. By decade's end, the two-block area was one of many that had become, in the now-famous phrase of the Goldseker Foundation's "Baltimore 2000" report, part of the "rot beneath the glitter" of the Inner Harbor.

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