Investors picture Oldtown in next wave of renewal

Plans would reinvent former industrial area in shadow of JFX


Jerry Schnitzer surveys the block where his family's business, Hillen Tire & Auto, operated for 88 years and sees only a gritty landscape where factories once hummed with life and many of his longtime customers have left.

Sanket Patel, in that same commercial area around Fallsway and Gay Street known as Oldtown, looks past the abandoned or shuttered warehouses and homeless people wandering the streets. He envisions new residents moving into condominiums in an up-and-coming community with restaurants, shops and a hotel.

"The city is expanding beyond this barrier of I-83," said Patel, vice president of Roma Inns Inc., an Odenton-based developer planning a hotel on the former Hillen Tire site, which his company bought from Schnitzer over the summer. "If someone like us takes the initiative to start it off, it will be like a domino effect. There are a lot of properties available, and builders are willing to invest. It's a matter of someone starting it."

Patel is among a wave of investors who see a chance to become development pioneers in the shadow of a Jones Falls Expressway ramp, in a triangle of downtown mostly untouched by the type of industrial-to-mixed-use transformation taking hold in other Baltimore neighborhoods.

For the first time, the area could open up to residential development, as city planners consider a zoning change designed to connect the business corridor between downtown and Oldtown Mall, which is also slated for redevelopment. The hope, city planners say, is that Fallsway will no longer be viewed as a barrier between downtown and East Baltimore.

Plans are in the works for the low-slung Hillen Tire building to become a 120-room hotel, either a Cambria Suites or a Sleep Inn. Next door, on the corner of Fallsway and Gay, another developer plans to transform the once-grand but now-vacant Old Town Bank building into 24 condominiums and a first-floor restaurant. Down the street, a multistory furniture store could become as many as 28 condominiums. And on North Gay Street, another property owner plans to open a food emporium.

Such plans could dovetail with a developer's plan to reinvigorate the area around Oldtown Mall, in one of the city's oldest commercial districts. Baltimore Development Corp. has chosen Continental Realty Corp. and Big Mac Properties P-I LP to build a shopping center anchored by a full-service supermarket on five city-owned acres adjacent to the mostly vacant pedestrian mall.

"To me, this seems like the next area as the harbor keeps expanding east to west," said Ben Goldenhersh, vice president of Storch Realty, a Savage-based apartment manager and developer that has a contract on the Furncraft furniture building on Fallsway, which Goldenhersh is considering converting to condos.

"It's literally under a minute walk from City Hall, a five- to 20-minute walk to the harbor. You can walk to the nightclubs [near] Port Discovery. We think the neighborhood is ripe for a change. It's time for it to join the rest of the community downtown."

For decades, the blocks bounded by Hillen, Orleans, Low, Front, Lexington and Fallsway have been home to mostly industrial users, including at one time a bedding factory. Today, homeless men sleep in a nearby park owned by St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, between the main post office and the Jones Falls Expressway.

It was in this area, on North Gay Street, that the state put its new Juvenile Justice Center two years ago, a facility that includes three youth dormitories, the Baltimore juvenile court, the juvenile division of the state's attorney's and public defender's offices, and related offices.

Local investors argue that rather than detracting from the neighborhood, the juvenile center, the first new investment in the area in years, could serve as a catalyst for further investment.

Schnitzer said the area has changed for the worse. Business at Hillen Tire, started in 1917 on Hillen Street by his immigrant father, Joseph Schnitzer, has faltered over the past year, he says.

"Now's the time to go," said Schnitzer, who will keep a Hillen auto shop in Cockeysville. "In the last year, business has really fallen off downtown. We decided to sell the property and move on."

He said he has lost many longtime customers as business people moved out, including some who ran shops at Oldtown Mall. The dozens of turn-of-the-century buildings were turned into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s, when four blocks of North Gay Street were closed to traffic. But it spiraled into decline after nearby high-rise housing projects were demolished in the 1990s and replaced with lower-density housing. A Baltimore institution, the century-old Jeppi Nut Co., moved out of its North High Street building in 2003.

"There's nothing moving in and no vitality," Schnitzer said.

But the area could be on the verge of change.

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