City neighborhood hopes new addition to Harford Road adds vitality


Just feet from the porch of Sue Holmes' two-story craftsman-style house sits the future of one of Baltimore's solidly middle-class neighborhoods: A small tract of land at Harford Road and Montebello Terrace, home to a now-shuttered gas station and convenience store.

Long an eyesore to many Lauraville residents - overrun with a dilapidated forklift, abandoned boat and piles of carpet - the site is now on the brink of transformation.

"If the city didn't come, it would still be a junkyard," Holmes said. "It's a sign that the neighborhood is very vital."

The Baltimore Development Corp., which acquired the land in the 4500 block of Harford Road last year, is considering bids from three companies interested in transforming the site into apartments or a combination of retail and office space.

Many in the neighborhood are banking on the proposed project's success to serve as a major catalyst for revitalization along that section of Harford Road, a business district that has languished in recent years as shoppers have made their way to larger retail centers in the suburbs. Just a handful of shops near the site are in business - a florist, a bookstore and cafe, a couple of salons, a grocery store and a restaurant - making for a lively retail scene, but not the critical mass many long for.

"We hope this project will leverage other private development to come in, and will in hand provide the amenities that the community is looking for," said William L. Beckford, director of commercial revitalization at the BDC, the city's economic development agency. "It's a great community up there and it deserves to be served."

Holmes, who has lived in her house there for 24 years, said she would prefer a mix of retail and office space. The opportunity to possibly have a yoga studio within walking distance is something she has only dreamed about. And, like many others in the neighborhood, she said retailers haven't been taking advantage of the local appetite for more upscale shopping options.

"We're very frustrated with our inability to attract quality retailers to the city," said Kenneth Lockie, president of the Lauraville Improvement Association. "There's people with money in the city and we'd really like to spend it here. We offer a really stable community."

If stability can be measured in homeownership rates and annual salaries, Lauraville meets the criteria: 75 percent of housing units in the neighborhood are owner-occupied, above the citywide statistic of 50 percent, according to the city Planning Department. And 32.4 percent of its households earn more than $60,000 annually, according to 2000 Census statistics compiled by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance.

The average price of homes in Lauraville has risen steadily in recent years, from $86,869 in 2002 to $142,821 this year, according to Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit group devoted to promoting city living.

Busy Harford Road, long a major route for suburban commuters, anchors the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood of curvy, tree-lined streets and large, single-family homes.

"It's a stable neighborhood," Holmes said. "There are people who were born and raised here and are now raising their kids here. You get a lot of house for your money. You get a yard, trees. ... Some of these houses are huge. For the price you'd pay for a Hampden rowhouse, you can get a four- to five-bedroom house with a big yard."

The proposed projects on the 25,000-square-foot site include Shops at Lauraville, a two-story building with retail space on the ground floor and office space on the upper level, anchored by a Christo's American Bistro; Harper Commons, which would be a 24-unit apartment building; and Montebello Place, a three-story building containing 10 two-bedroom apartments, new offices for Schnader Companies and other retail space.

The three proposals were welcomed, Beckford said, after the BDC's initial request for proposals a year ago went unanswered. He credited the sudden interest in the Lauraville property to a boom in Baltimore's real estate market, which began downtown and has spread to city neighborhoods.

The BDC, according to Beckford, also learned an old-fashioned marketing lesson: Appearance is important.

After the first call for bids failed to garner interest, BDC demolished a small house on the property and removed the gas station's canopy to allow a better vision of the site's possibilities.

"We decided to make the site a clean site for people to look at," Beckford said. "Now they drive by and for the most part, it's vacant land and you can start seeing opportunity."

Beckford said he expects that a recommendation on a developer will be made to the city by early next year.

Additionally, a $7 million planned road project that would add a center median on Harford Road and include streetscaping, sidewalk repairs and improved lighting is heralded by neighbors and business owners who say the measures will help bring more shoppers to the area.

In the 4300 block of Harford Road, near the site of the proposed project, business is booming for Nicole Selhorst, owner of Red Canoe, a combination children's bookstore and coffeehouse. The shop, which opened last year inside two adjoining rowhouses, attracts legions of children and parents who come most afternoons for storytelling, lattes and carrot cake squares.

"As a community, we're working together in clustering complementary businesses up here," Selhorst said. "We've proven here that the boutique-style shops can be a success."

Sharon Garnett, owner for 19 years of Lady's Touch, a salon doors away from Red Canoe, is hopeful that the vacant site is developed as retail space, something she says is sorely lacking in the neighborhood.

"That's my biggest gripe, if we could have other retail stores that would attract people and really make them want to come to this corner. ... I think other really nice retail stores would make a great addition," Garnett said.

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