Developing revival of Westport has profit, pitfalls

August 05, 2005|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Trucks rumbled noisily past Velma Wright's rowhouse on Annapolis Road, drowning out conversation as she sat on her porch in the afternoon heat. Her block in Westport is scarred with boarded-up homes. Discarded junk fills overgrown backyards. Across the busy street, the little candy and hardware shops shut their doors long ago.

Yet Wright's narrow house, just blocks from an industrial waterfront, is a hot property.

With Baltimore home values soaring and developers eyeing Westport's shoreline for glitzy new development, investors have come calling on homeowners in struggling neighborhoods along the Middle Branch.

They send letters, call on the phone or knock on the door with typically vague offers that dangle hope for unexpected financial gain.

But community leaders are countering with pitches of their own, cautioning homeowners not to sell. Amid an unprecedented real estate boom that is remaking other city neighborhoods, the issue isn't whether redevelopment is desirable, but who will profit.

They worry that hard-pressed homeowners who have endured decades of decline will sell out too quickly, leaving big profits for others to reap.

Offers ranging up to $60,000 can look tempting in a neighborhood such as Westport where prices have fallen to an average $45,679 in the first quarter of this year and where many homes sell for less, according to data compiled by the nonprofit LiveBaltimore.

"Some people will take that, thinking that's a lot of money," said Linda Towe, executive director of Project Toour (Teaching Our Own Understanding and Responsibility), an umbrella group that includes Westport and neighboring Lakeland and Mount Winans.

"But because the housing market is what it is, that's nothing."

And they worry that homeowners who do sell will be left with limited housing options in a rapidly appreciating market.

`Don't sell your house'

"We've been getting the word out: Don't sell your house," said Ruth Sherrill, president of the Westport Improvement Association, who said she has received 15 or 20 offers for her Waterview Avenue house over the past two years.

"Where are you going to go but in the same neighborhood or worse?"

Charles S. Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, a nonprofit agency that develops and manages for-sale and rental housing in the city, said homeowners in neighborhoods such as Westport are used to being pressured by abandonment and falling values, not gentrification.

As of 2000, more than 22 percent of the houses in Westport had been abandoned, according to the city Department of Planning.

"The danger in a reviving neighborhood is that ignorant homeowners can lose the opportunity to gain the profit of a reviving neighborhood. There are an awful lot of blue-collar families who have their life savings in their house, and this is their chance to build wealth," he said.

Trying to hold on

Wright and her disabled husband feel the lure of offers in the $50,000 to $60,000 range - far more than they paid in 1981. The couple struggles some months to pay the gas and electric bill.

"I'm going to try to hold on as long as I can," she said.

When phone calls from investors come to William E. Davidson, a retired trucking company worker whose parents bought his Annapolis Road rowhouse in the 1960s for $1,600, "We cut them off quick. We're not interested in anything they have to talk about.

"When I say, `You can have it for $100,000,' it's a joke to them. But I wouldn't sell it for less than $100,000, because where am I going?"

Developers are training their sights on Westport amid insatiable demand for homes on or near the water. Other once-working-class areas of Baltimore such as Canton and Locust Point have already seen old industrial areas transformed by upscale projects at prices their original residents could have never afforded.

"Anyplace where water is now, everyone is jumping through hoops to get a piece of it," said Janette Little, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker. "Any new development will bring value or improve a neighborhood. If it starts on the waterfront, it will extend into the neighborhood."

Now Baltimore city planners are working to create development guidelines in anticipation of a gold rush to develop Westport's waterfront. The 50-acre swath along the Middle Branch waterfront has already been dubbed "Harbor West."

"I think it's going to be one of the best neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore, with proximity to downtown, the water and parks," said Patrick Turner, a Baltimore-based developer.

Turner, of Henrietta Development Corp., envisions transforming the industrial shoreline into a mixed-use development.

His Inner Harbor West LLC bought the former Carr-Lowery glass manufacturing plant on Kloman Street and has a contract on the adjacent 12-acre site of a closed Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. power plant, also on Kloman Street.

No specifics on plans

Many residents welcome Turner's plans - through he hasn't unveiled specifics yet - and see him as an ally in their attempts to improve their neighborhood.

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