Renovations invigorating midtown

Enthusiasm nurtured by incentives works wonders on North Calvert

February 16, 2003|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Once-rundown multi-unit apartments, rentals and offices are returning to their original use as single-family homes along the 1000 and 1100 blocks of N. Calvert St.

With the help of a local nonprofit group, some homebuyers are finding that Baltimore's midtown area offers historic houses and likely tax incentives and low-interest loans for those willing to put in the time, money and effort to renovate.

The 4,000-square-foot, three- and four-story homes along the two-block stretch of North Calvert have distinct architectural detail. Most sell for under $225,000, before renovations.

Programs to sustain investment in the neighborhood include incentive loans to purchase and renovate the houses as well as bridge loans to support the use of the state's historic preservation tax credits. The recipient of a mayor's Healthy Neighborhoods grant and a state Community Legacy Area grant, Midtown Development Corp. helps homeowners looking to renovate in the 900 to 1300 blocks of N. Calvert.

With proposals for impending budget cuts, however, the state historic tax credit program could be in jeopardy. Some state lawmakers - including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - have proposed limiting it to help reduce a budget deficit. Advocates such as Midtown Development Corp. Program Director Will Backstrom are defending the program to lawmakers, saying it helps draw homebuyers to the area. Several advocates lobbied lawmakers in Annapolis last week to keep the credits.

"Right now, through the Maryland Historic Trust you can receive up to 20 percent of your renovation cost back to you in the form of a refund from the state," he said. "It's a reward for doing good work, and it's an economy stirrer."

Another incentive available is the mayor's Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative, a loan program available to seven designated neighborhoods throughout the city.

One of those neighborhoods is in the 900 to 1300 blocks of North Calvert. Through Healthy Neighborhoods, homeowners can borrow up to $80,000 at 3.9 percent interest for home renovations.

Incentives aside, Backstrom emphasized, financing is not the main attraction to prospective homebuyers.

"It's the houses themselves," he said. "These are gorgeous, Victorian rowhouses in the heart of our cultural district."

Peter Quinn and Gillian Cook agree. The couple recently purchased a home in the 1100 block of North Calvert, in an area known as Belvedere Terrace. After they began their search for a house, they quickly realized the limitations of what they could reasonably afford.

"There were two types of houses that we could get," Quinn recalled. "We could get a small house that was livable walking in, that we would probably outgrow in a couple of years. Or we could buy a house that we could grow into that we'd have to work on."

They opted for the latter, paying $159,900.

Their new home will require a fair amount of work - a new furnace, updated electrical wiring and plumbing. But the tax incentives and city loan program will help them to get the work done, they said.

For these former Butchers Hill residents, convenience also was key. Their Calvert Street house is within walking distance of where they work. And, added Cook, they fell in love with the area's architectural beauty and the size of the homes.

"We can walk to work and to have coffee or lunch. It's close to the train station and the light rail. And the streets are tree-lined," Cook said. "We knew we wanted to buy an older house, and that we wanted to buy in a Healthy Neighborhood, to get these incentives."

They are not alone.

Midtown Development Corp. reports that homeownership in the 1000 and 1100 blocks of North Calvert has risen by about 5 percent in the past few years.

Until recently, the homeownership rate had been under 10 percent, but new buyers, many moving from the Washington or Baltimore suburbs, are renovating more than 11 houses along the two blocks.

Midtown attracts a diverse group, according to Backstrom. The area's newest homeowners include locals, out-of-state commuters and those who recently have relocated. Though few families have shown an interest in purchasing houses there, Backstrom said, the neighborhood's greatest appeal seems to be to young and middle-age urban professionals.

Albert Petrasek knew ahead of time which house he wanted. In fact, it wasn't for sale. Rather, Petrasek approached the owner and offered to buy the property, a house used as an office building at 1013 Calvert.

Eventually, the owner agreed. The house is commercially zoned, but Petrasek wants to have it rezoned as a residence. He bought the house, which has all of its original detail from the 1880s, for $290,000.

Petrasek is like many others moving to the area - he is a commuter. For several years he has lived in nearby Charles Village, but found the lack of parking left much to be desired for his growing car collection. His new backyard lot has plenty of room.

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