Uncertain, but staying put

Resident: Brenda Meier likes her cozy apartment on the city's west side, but the area's drawbacks - real and perceived - are nagging.

January 02, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Would she stay or would she go? Brenda Meier used to ask herself that all the time.

One minute, she would revel in being a pioneer on downtown Baltimore's west side, eager for Howard Street's hoped-for revival to rise up around her cozy apartment in a converted department store.

The next minute, she would want to move, maybe all the way back to the one-stoplight town in Nebraska she left in September 2001 to move to the East.

Meier, 32, hasn't gone anywhere since The Sun profiled her in February. She lives at the Atrium, in the former Hecht's store at Howard and Lexington streets. And she still walks to work at Lutheran World Relief, a nonprofit group at the Inner Harbor.

But she still can't say how long she will stay. "It's the best place for me to be right now - at this moment," Meier said, speaking of the one-bedroom unit she rents for $900 a month.

Her continued ambivalence reflects the west side's own mixed fortunes. It is visibly improving in places but has a long way to go before city officials can say they have created a neighborhood.

In 15 months, Meier has seen work crews begin to overhaul the nearby Hippodrome Theater and start on the huge Centerpoint residential and retail center. She has made friends at the mostly full Atrium and had some nice calls from people who read about her.

But while she loves her place, Meier has not gotten used to the sense of isolation that comes from living on a street that turns into a ghost town at night. She has not even found a cafe nearby and getting around is hard without a car. (But she acknowledges that she has never visited the remodeled Lexington Market, around the corner.)

Meier has also witnessed the staying power of bad perceptions about the west side. The city's ambitious revitalization effort remains beset by doubts and by suspicions that the area is dangerous, even though police say violent crime is nil.

Consider Jane Pitakkoshkorn's story.

The 22-year-old University of Alaska student had an internship last summer at T. Rowe Price Associates. She found the Atrium on the Internet and prepaid three months' rent. The tab, which included furniture rental, security deposit and a premium for a short-term lease, totaled $4,000.

Meier and Pitakkoshkorn became friends and walked to their downtown jobs together. That ended after barely two weeks, though, when people at T. Rowe Price heard where their intern was living.

"They just freaked out," Pitakkoshkorn said recently by phone from Alaska. She appreciated the concern but said she was "fine" and that "it wasn't that scary."

"It was really nice; I really liked it there," she said.

But T. Rowe Price was worried. "The company actually got me another place in another part of town," she said. Her new place - paid for by the company - was at the pricey PierSide apartments off Key Highway.

"That's preposterous," said Robert Aydukovic, who promotes urban living for the Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy group. "It just reinforces the old notion that sometimes Baltimore is its own worst enemy. Folks who are long-term Baltimoreans probably do more damage than good."

T. Rowe Price spokesman Brian Lewbart said company officials were concerned about Pitakkoshkorn's safety because she didn't know the city well and worked odd hours. That does not change the fact, he said, that the company supports downtown economic development.

The relocation impulse is one Meier has felt in Baltimore. She was among the first residents of the Atrium, which developer David H. Hillman spent $20 million converting to housing. In the early days, only the faint hum of garbage disposals told her she was not alone.

More tenants

She has much more company now. As of yesterday, 141 of 173 apartment units have been rented, and the goal is to be full by the end of this month, said manager Cindy Quimby.

"We're getting there," Quimby said, describing a broad range of tenants, including nurses, police officers and graduate students at University of Maryland, Baltimore.

A recent party for residents attracted 70 people, she said. And unlike when Meier moved in, the fitness center and high-speed Internet access are up and running.

"The area is changing," Quimby said. "Believe it or not, there isn't an objection when people move in. They look twice, but it's not that `Oh my God, where did they put me?' "

She says panhandling and loitering have eased since Baltimore police opened a substation in the Atrium's basement.

Construction in the area makes it easier for her to convince prospective tenants that change is coming. Many buildings remain in poor shape, and existing stores often cater to a low-income clientele - something Meier, for one, thinks should not be wholly ended "in the name of progress."

Some problems persist. Cabdrivers sometimes resist taking residents home at night. "They say, `Lady, you don't want to go there - there's nothing there,' " Quimby said.

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