Hopkins plans to buy building in Mount Vernon for dormitories

Stafford Apartments now low-income housing

March 22, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins University is close to buying the Stafford Apartments in Mount Vernon, a school official says, and by autumn the elegant 11-story building should be converted from low-income housing to student dorms.

The change has been in the works since 2002, when Maryland's congressional leaders helped void a federal provision restricting the tower -- overlooking one of Baltimore's most picturesque squares -- to poor residents.

But Hopkins had not said publicly it would buy the building from Denver-based AIMCO Inc. Nor did it specify when the 96 units would be ready for students, mostly from Hopkins-affiliated Peabody Institute a block away.

Talks with AIMCO are down to "the finer points," said David M. McDonough, senior director of development oversight in the Hopkins real estate office. He said "no real major issues" remain but would not predict when a deal might be reached.

An AIMCO official, Patti Shwayder, said yesterday that her company might form a partnership with Hopkins to own the tower, or "it may be Hopkins alone." Either way, she said, it will be overhauled for students.

Neither McDonough nor Shwayder detailed the cost.

Supporters of the conversion see it as a boon for Mount Vernon Square, once one of the city's most fashionable addresses and still a key link on the Charles Street corridor between downtown and Mount Vernon.

Of the approximately 100 students expected to live in the building, Peabody students would get first priority, McDonough said. Any room left would go to other students in the Hopkins system.

"Students are one of our best audiences," said Rebecca Gagalis, executive director of the Charles Street Development Corp., because they spend money at restaurants and shops, and add to what she calls "people traffic."

Gagalis said the conversion also makes sense for former low-income tenants, especially those with children. Most units have just one bedroom, she noted, and the nearby park space is not ideal for playing.

The building is mostly empty now. Some who have moved are happy with their subsidized housing elsewhere, but others are bitter about being uprooted from a place they considered home.

The Stafford was built in 1896 just north of the Washington Monument as a honeymoon hotel. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived there.

In 1970, the Stafford's owner made it federally subsidized housing mainly for the elderly and disabled. Complaints about crime grew in the late 1980s, when the federal Department of Housing and Community Development let in recovering drug addicts and alcoholics.

The building would have remained low-income housing through 2016 because a previous owner had received a loan through a federal housing program.

But in 2002, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and others in the state delegation added language to a bill, ending the restriction -- and calling for student housing there.

Richard Parrish, who is 33 and does not work due to a disability, moved Jan. 20 to a subsidized apartment in Sharp-Leadenhall near M&T Bank Stadium.

"I wish I was still at Stafford," he said yesterday. "I was in walking distance to everything."

But Darryllyn Lewis, also 33, said life at the Stafford was not great. She has a disabling form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, she said; urine in elevators and overflowing trash bins worsened her phobia of germs.

"Every time I would leave out of my apartment, I would have overwhelming fear -- what am I going to touch?" she said.

Now she lives downtown in the well-kept Charles Towers at Charles and Saratoga streets, paying $288 a month where apartments normally start at $725. She saw the opening on a list at the Stafford.

"Stafford did me a favor," she said. "Where I live at now is much more beautiful."

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