Originally from Baltimore County's east side, Michele and J.D. Urbach wanted to go home again. Or at least be much closer to it.
The couple, who are in their 20s, had moved from Dundalk to Owings Mills last year but found themselves frequently returning to their roots to visit family, attend church and tend to other commitments. As the gnarled face of the rust belt in eastern Baltimore County finally started getting a face lift, the couple seized a new dream.
In June, the Urbachs, whose first child is due in February, will move into a new four-bedroom $200,000 home in the community of WaterView at the headwaters of Middle River. WaterView is a new village of single-family homes where the Riverdale Apartments, a dilapidated and crime-ridden complex, once stood.
WaterView and another development, Hopewell Pointe, are the first two projects under construction in the county's blueprint to redevelop crumbling sections of the east side.
Clearing and grading work is starting at Hopewell Pointe on Hopkins Creek, not far from WaterView.
Expected to open next year, the Hopewell Pointe development will include homes, a restaurant and a marina.
The Urbachs and others embody what some naysayers predicted would never happen - new-home buyers moving into older but revitalized east-side neighborhoods.
Essex, for example, was at the epicenter of a successful fight against government property condemnation proposed in 2000 in Senate Bill 509, which was part of the county's blueprint until voters defeated it in a referendum. As it turned out, the legislation was not necessary for redevelopment to start.
Even the most ardent anti-SB 509 east-sider is heartened by the emergence of the two projects.
"I wish I could snap my fingers and it would be here, it's so exciting," said Roger Zajdel, manager of Commodore Hall in Essex. "This area has been downtrodden for so long that I see the new development as the most exciting thing to hit Essex - and I was raised here."
In the mid-1990s, county planners wanted to tame suburban sprawl and looked to older neighborhoods such as Middle River, Essex and Dundalk for Smart Growth initiatives, a state program that aims to redevelop run-down areas in old neighborhoods. Instead of gobbling up new land, increasing pollution and further eroding the economic vitality of older communities, the county looked to knock down the old and bring in the new.
Larry Rosenberg, managing partner of WaterView Joint Venture LLC and president of Mark Building Co., has invested heavily in the project and is examining other sites for potential redevelopment.
"I am looking at other opportunities because this area has a tremendous asset - the water," Rosenberg said. "And it's never quite been viewed that way, bringing people back to live by the water, play and visit by the water."
At WaterView, the first 40 homes were bought within two weeks. The 65-acre site will feature houses with wraparound front porches, alleys and detached garages. In addition to the 175 homes that start at $165,000, WaterView will have a commercial area with a supermarket, a bank, a drug store, a restaurant, a day care center and retail shops.
But not all of the dreams for the county's east side are within reach.
Some other plans, such as the development of an ambitious waterfront destination at a spot where three underused marinas sit across from WaterView, are lagging. And some troubled housing complexes remain, such as Kingsley Park and Yorkway. Developers have been talking to the owners about buying them, officials said, but progress has not been evident.
Developers of Hopewell started work in earnest several months ago after demolition began on World War II-era apartment buildings in the Villages of Tall Trees, only yards from Hopewell's property line. A public park will replace Tall Trees.
The 55-acre Hopewell tract will include 86 semidetached homes and 128 condominiums. The development will feature a waterfront restaurant and a marina with 134 slips, most of which will be restricted to property owners, said Ellwood A. Sinsky, owner of Ellwood Building Corp. of Owings Mills, one of the project's developers.
Hopewell Pointe was announced with much fanfare in 1996 but stalled while county officials promoted SB 509.
"Before we moved ahead, there were concerns among our development team" about the east side "ever becoming an exciting place that people would like to move into," said Sinsky, who also serves on the county's planning board.
"Those concerns have been laid to rest," Sinsky said.
Sewer lines are being laid, Sinsky said, and the Hopkins Creek shore is being lined with stones.
"We are looking toward having our first model homes ready by the summer," Sinsky said. The more expensive homes will sell for about $200,000, with the condominiums starting at $100,000.
Besides the restaurant and marina, a commercial site with stores and offices will be developed on Hopewell's northern side near Old Eastern Avenue.