Struggling Pigtown awaits boost from Montgomery Park

Southwest area of city feels its time has come

Too well `located to be ignored'

January 12, 2003|By Marie Gullard | Marie Gullard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

After the Inner Harbor's renaissance and the revitalization of its surrounding neighborhoods, it comes as no surprise that the southwest area of town is ready and hoping for a major turnaround.

Here lies one of the oldest and most historic sections of town; an area often referred to by some neighborhood residents as "too centrally located to be ignored."

Its Pigtown neighborhood was renamed Washington Village during the late 1970s. The neighborhood is south of Pratt Street, enclosed by Martin Luther King Boulevard to the east, Carey Street to the west, and just north of Wicomico Street.

Rick Ferguson lives in Pigtown in a 125-year-old home, a half-block south of Washington Boulevard. A real estate officer for the Maryland State Highway Administration, Ferguson purchased his Scott Street home two years ago after renting it for 10 years.

"I have a completely different take on [my home] now that I own it," he says. "I keep it in sale-able condition."

Ferguson paid $25,000 for his 5,000-square-foot townhouse. The circle of revitalization around the harbor, he theorizes, is expanding to include the urban renewal wedge: Pigtown. He notes two anchors in the area: the B&O Railroad Museum and the Montgomery Ward project.

The art-deco Montgomery Ward building in Southwest Baltimore was renovated in the hope it would improve the surrounding area, which lost 15 percent of its population from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

The structure, at Washington Boulevard and Monroe Street, was built in 1925 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In its heyday, the large, white building - highly visible from Interstate 95 at the city-county line - was the largest retail outlet and mail-order business in the metropolitan area.

A lot of space

Renovated by owner Himmelrich Associates Inc., the long-vacant building has yielded approximately 1.3 million square feet for rent.

The architect, William Mueller of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, designed amenities that include a 500-seat auditorium and conference facility, along with an athletic club in a central atrium. The atrium includes a food court with vendors such as Subway, Stonemill Bakery and Mama Illardo's Pizza.

The hope is that Montgomery Park will provide space for as many as 5,000 workers.

Andy Andrews, principal vice president with Colliers Pinkard, the park's leasing agent, notes that the response to Montgomery Park has been good despite poor market conditions.

NCO Group Inc., one of the world's largest bill collectors, will be moving in during the first quarter of this year, bringing up to 600 jobs. NCO Group will join current tenants, the Maryland Department of the Environment with 900 employees and the Maryland State Lottery with 175 workers.

Andrews said about 450,000 square feet of the building is leased, and he is marketing the rest to various users.

When they announced their decision to move to Montgomery Park, NCO officials said they chose the neighborhood because of the labor pool that lived nearby, the free parking, and reasonable rent and utility costs.

Others were attracted by the area's proximity to downtown. But some businesses have stayed away, given the neighborhood's challenges in attracting more housing and commercial activity.

Needed boost

Re-establishing Montgomery Park as a place of daily activity could provide a needed boost to Carroll-Camden Industrial Park, part of Baltimore's federal empowerment zone.

Montgomery Park, which resides in the industrial park, is seen as an anchor for Pigtown. "We love the idea of what [Montgomery Park] will do to the surrounding neighborhoods," Andrews said.

Pat Finn, a residential broker with Long & Foster, notes that the real estate market in the area is slow and that she does not use Montgomery Park as a "selling point."

She says, however, that there are bargains to be had. "Certain areas off of Washington Boulevard around Carroll Park are seeing a turnaround," she says. "On Bayard, Bush and Cleveland Streets, [people] are buying and renovating. Investors, too, are buying and rehabbing."

In the 21230 ZIP code, south and east of Montgomery Park, the average list price for a home, be it a rowhouse or freestanding, is $66,373. The 21223 ZIP code, north of the complex, offers an average list price of $37,970 for both types of housing, based on recent figures collected by the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc.

Many homes are abandoned and boarded up and some are just shells.

Larry Little, director of the Construction and Demolition Division in the Department of Housing and Commercial Development, said his agency has no immediate plans for demolition. "This would only happen if a collapsed roof or serious structural problems posed a threat to existing homes," he said.

"Everyone would like to see the renovation of these homes and commercial properties, it brings a tax base back to the city. Montgomery Park might just do that."

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