In $1 million rowhouse, sign of things to come

June 24, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

OUT THERE in Anne Arundel County, grabbing with both hands, Daniel F. Jackson has just sent another signal that the city of Baltimore has a future full of promise. He got himself a million bucks for a modest little rowhouse that used to be worth maybe half a cheese sandwich. I will mark his $1.1 million windfall next to the $82.50 I used to spend for a month's rent on the same Charles Village street where Jackson just cashed in.

His case is special, but it's also a sign of things to come. Jackson was the last property holdout on the 3200 block of St. Paul St., in the shadows of the Johns Hopkins University, where C. William Struever is developing his $150 million housing and retail project.

Jackson's no novice. He's got rental properties in Pasadena, so he knows about real estate values. For the past five years, while Struever's been buying up Charles Village properties that had seen better days and demolishing them to build his new St. Paul Street homes and shops, Jackson's been biding his time. It's paying off for him, and it'll pay off for Struever and for the neighborhood.

On the east side of the 3200 block, 68 loft apartments will start at $300,000. On the west side, about 100 condo apartments and penthouse units will go for more. No wonder Jackson held out for his cool million before selling. No wonder Struever's paying it. No wonder, too, that it makes me look back longingly to that $82.50 I used to spend, a short walk down St. Paul Street from Jackson's cash-out.

Times change, and so does the value of a buck. And so do the fortunes of neighborhoods. Jackson's profit tells us he knew how to cut a bargain - but it also tells us about Charles Village, and about a city that continues to amaze itself with its changing fortunes (economic and spiritual).

Thirty-seven years ago, fresh out of college, I moved onto St. Paul Street, precisely four blocks below Jackson's property. For $82.50 a month, I had the second floor of a rowhouse with a large, sun-splashed bedroom, a cozy living room, a large bathroom and a kitchen big enough to play handball in.

Today, things being how they are, you cannot get such a place for $82.50.

About 60 rental units in the neighborhood are owned by Charles Village Apartments, where Steve Crouch said yesterday that the same kind of apartment I once rented would probably go for $600 or more today.

"They empty out, and they're filled up again within a couple of days," Crouch said. "The last two years, especially, the neighborhood's really hot. That's the way it is in the city today."

It tells us about Jackson's million-dollar windfall, and about my old rent, too.

A few months after I moved in, in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, the city was hit by four days and nights of riots. National Guard troops were spread all along 25th Street, at the southern tip of Charles Village, to contain the frenzy. Today, that part of 25th Street includes a Safeway, a CVS drug store, shops and three quality bookstores. At Charles and 25th are the offices of two newspapers, The Afro-American and the Baltimore Times.

Their presence alone symbolizes a journey: from National Guard troops in a city torn by racial strife, to newspapers whose audience is largely the growing African-American middle class.

"The neighborhood's on a real upswing," says Kevin Johnson, at his 25th Street Royal Books store. "Very clean, very safe."

"We came here in 1977," says Teresa Johanson, poring over a text that looks old as the Dead Sea Scrolls. She and her husband, Don, sit in a back room of their store, Johanson's Rare Books, next-door to Royal Books. "This street was a little dangerous back then. You heard about break-ins. In the 1980s, you had people moving out. Even Hopkins students were moving over to Hampden, because it felt safer. The last few years, there's been a turnaround again. It's really improved."

The reference to Hampden is important. For the past several years, everybody marvels over the transformation of the city's waterfront neighborhoods, from Locust Point and Federal Hill to Little Italy and Fells Point over to Canton. But the renaissance is moving inland. A few weeks ago, at Hampden's annual HonFest, you saw a neighborhood that has learned to fall in love with itself and with its image as a throwback to the city's old Big Hair culture. But its old working class is now mixed with a new artsy crowd.

Hampden's learned to market itself as a good-natured kind of Bawlamer throwback. In the same sense, Struever understands that the greatest strength of Charles Village remains its magnificent cultural institutions - Hopkins and the Baltimore Museum of Art - and his new project includes a Hopkins student dorm and a bookstore.

(The city's not just marketing neighborhoods, but themes. On Charles Street from downtown to North Avenue, we've got the so-called cultural district. If the University of Baltimore ever figures out a way to get its student population more involved in life around its campus, the possibilities are endless.)

Meantime, we have Daniel F. Jackson cashing in on the rejuvenation of Charles Village. Whoever thought a little rowhouse in the 3200 block of St. Paul St. could bring a cool million? Nobody. Of course, nobody imagined such a resurgence of neighborhoods in so many parts of this surprising city.

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