Reservoir Hill's restoration

Challenge: Community groups work to rescue a historic neighborhood from years of spotty decline.

October 13, 2002|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Run-down houses, rodents the size of cats and crowded multifamily units well over their legal limit threaten the sanctity of one historic neighborhood, where the ghosts of bullets and drug-infested corners still haunt people's minds. But there are signs that a decades-awaited revitalization is slowly under way.

Many of the homes have retained their grandeur of more than a century ago, appealing to a different breed of Baltimore urbanite -- the commuter. Welcome to Reservoir Hill's Upper Eutaw Place/Madison Avenue neighborhood, a four-block stretch of about 400 homes along the two streets between North Avenue and Druid Lake Park Drive.

"Most people think that some neighborhoods are good and some neighborhoods are bad. This is an area where you have fully restored houses next to abandoned houses," said Charles Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore -- a community development organization that recently was awarded a state Community Legacy grant to support short-term lending costs and capital costs and help with property acquisition and renovation in the Eutaw Place/Madison area.

"It's a neighborhood in transition. Our job is to make sure it goes the right way, that it goes from vacancy to occupation, that it goes from absent ownership to owner-occupancy," he said.

"The main challenge is, if you buy a house for what it costs and fix it up for what it costs to fix it up, you can't sell it for what you've put in it, in most cases," Duff explained. "If somebody buys one of these houses and fixes it up, they're taking a pretty big risk. And if there are other people who care whether this neighborhood survives, they should be willing to share part of that risk. We're here because the state of Maryland was willing to share part of that risk, and was willing to put $350,000 into supporting the renovation of houses in Upper Eutaw/Madison."

Jubilee's initiative in the area began during the summer, with the idea that "if you want to fix up this house, buy it for what it costs and fix it up for what renovation costs, the state will plug your gap," Duff said.

It is the latest attempt to induce people to do what they might not otherwise consider, for fear of making an unwise, short-term economic decision. "If you get enough people to do it, it's a good long-term economic decision," Duff said.

In a community where one in eight houses is vacant, some might look at Upper Eutaw Place/Madison Avenue as a lost cause. Duff and his colleagues see it as an opportunity.

"Basically, it takes 50 years to build a neighborhood. ... We are a nonprofit corporation that has been around for 21 years. We help fix up buildings, advise people on fixing up buildings, do community planning and try to hold neighborhoods together," he said.

Most recently, Jubilee has been working for the Midtown Benefits District, creating the community plan for midtown, and staffing the Midtown Development Corp. and a revitalization effort in another section of Reservoir Hill.

"There are very large and elaborate late-Victorian houses that have about 5,000 square feet of living area inside," Duff noted. "Consider that 5,000 square feet is about twice as big as the average house being built today. But turn around 180 degrees and you are looking at houses that are 30 years newer and half the size. This diversity is a great asset that can attract more than just one type of person. It can attract people who have more than just one type of preference."

Nontraditional styles

Further, he added, Reservoir Hill retains an appeal to residents not originally from Baltimore because of its nontraditional styles.

"It doesn't look like Baltimore. It's the only Baltimore area I know that really looks like Washington, as well as other places. Friends of mine from Chicago say it really makes them feel like they're home in Chicago. The houses aren't flat; they're not red brick; they're not close to the street. They have a sort of high, wide and handsome feel to them.

"Henry James a hundred years ago described it as `semi-suburban,' and it is," Duff said, pointing to the expansive Druid Hill Park and reservoir in view, just a few blocks away, and the many trees along nearby busy streets.

The city recently proposed $2 million to further property acquisition and improvement, along with a multiyear package of services to increase public safety, cleanliness and code compliance.

The $350,000 capital grant to be administered by Jubilee will be available for one year, with the hope that a year is long enough to accomplish some fairly ambitious goals.

In all, Jubilee aims to support eight major construction loans by current owners; eight sales to new buyers (over an 18-month grace period); and up to 16 owner-initiated home improvement investments. All are geared to improve consumer confidence in the area and attract new homebuyers.

As with any neighborhood, Duff warns, the ultimate selling point is the residents themselves. Looking around, he is optimistic.

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