Old and new of Pigtown

While boosters argue for change, others hope they aren't left out

April 05, 2006|By NICOLE FULLER | NICOLE FULLER,SUN REPORTER

Navid Sarfaraz and James Odoms represent the old and new of Pigtown.

Odoms, 33, who works as a carpenter, has lived in the neighborhood most of his life. He weathered the days of rampant drug dealing and stickups, but more recently, he has seen rents rising and longtime neighbors moving away.

Sarfaraz, 22, a graduate of Howard Community College, began renting a rowhouse in October, eager to trade the monotony of suburban life in his native Ellicott City for a more exciting existence. His parents worry about his safety in the big city.

The men live doors away from each other in the 900 block of Washington Blvd., Pigtown's commercial strip.

There are no fancy restaurants or even a pharmacy on the block. Just a small carryout pizza joint, the Holy Nation Tabernacle Church, an old bathhouse that's now a job placement center and Berman's Towing Inc., in business since 1949, so the sign says.

And on this block, like many others in the city, a plethora of abandoned buildings - a scene along parts of Washington Boulevard that Jack Danna, neighborhood booster through his job as manager of the Pigtown Main Street Program, has been lobbying hard to change.

"These [vacant] properties, these are really textbook examples ... impediments to attracting and sustaining new investments," Danna says. "The first thing you look at is what's next door to you."

He envisions an art gallery, bakery, drug store - even a fresh vegetable cooperative in this economically transitioning neighborhood, where views of Oriole Park at Camden Yards can be seen from year-old condominiums starting in the mid-$400,000s and the $750-a-month rowhouse rental units.

"There's a huge pent-up demand for that type of amenity," says Danna, who recruits entrepreneurs to invest in the neighborhood. "We're trying to make sure the development encapsulates what makes Pigtown great. We want to make sure the fabric of the neighborhood is retained. We want to find a way to keep artists here, entrepreneurs, immigrants."

Last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley signed an amendment to Pigtown's urban renewal plan allowing the city to employ eminent domain to take derelict properties. Through that legislation, and after much prodding by Danna and neighborhood residents, the Baltimore Development Corp. purchased the properties and recently called for development bids.

Two sites

The properties are in the 700 and 900 blocks of Washington Blvd., and one on nearby Eislen Street and are divided into two sites. The first consists of five properties in the 900 block of Washington Blvd., totaling about 7,600 square feet. The other properties are in the 700 block of Washington Blvd. and 760 Eislen St., totaling more than 10,000 square feet.

The neighborhood sits within walking distance of some of the city's biggest draws - the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, M&T Bank Stadium - and has easy access to Interstate 95, Interstate 295 and Interstate 395.

Its prime location has already attracted new development. Camden Crossing, a cluster of townhouses tucked behind Washington Boulevard, features homes starting at $450,000. Fifty-eight homes, with brick and white facades, have been constructed and occupied since the project began in 2004. Once complete, there will be 150 homes, ranging in space from 1,800 to 2,600 square feet, all with garages.

AnnMarie O'Connor, marketing manager for Camden Crossing and a resident with her lawyer husband, says she moved to the area to enjoy the benefits of city living.

"My husband and I were at the Hippodrome for a show, and we got home in two minutes," O'Connor says. "It was fabulous. And my husband and I walk down to the Inner Harbor when the weather's nice. And you can hear the crowds at the stadiums."

She said her husband longs for a small, independent bookstore within walking distance, and she could use a video store and a sit-down restaurant. What she enjoys most about the neighborhood, she said, is the diversity of its residents - families and singles of different races.

"It's helped the neighborhood," she says of Camden Crossing. "It's helped home prices go up for people, so they have equity in their homes."

Odoms says he admires the gleaming buildings constructed by a company he says he's worked for in the past, but he's troubled that some residents are seemingly being pushed out of the neighborhood. He and his wife, a Montgomery County teacher, appreciate improvements to the neighborhood, Odoms says, but they hope Pigtown doesn't become a neighborhood of astronomical rents.

"It's all about money now," Odoms says. "Pigtown was a family little part of Baltimore, and money changed everything. They sell people these dreams, and they push you right out."

Worry about rents

Talk of higher rents worries Sarfaraz, who splits the cost of the utilities and $750 monthly rent with his roommates, a couple of 20-somethings. He works part time as a cashier at the National Aquarium and is concerned about a $90 rent increase this month.

"It's because they're making the neighborhood nice, so [my landlord] can raise it to $840," Sarfaraz says. "Or he can find someone who can pay $1,000, which is sorta screwing me over."

Odoms and Sarfaraz talk about the ebb and flow of the neighborhood as they wash cars on a recent warm afternoon for the crush of construction workers who have seemingly infiltrated the area - rehabbing rowhouses and constructing several Habitat for Humanity homes. At $10 a car, they often make nice pocket change.

"I hope they fix [the abandoned buildings] up, but I hope it's not a place like Federal Hill or Fells Point," Sarfaraz says. "I'd just basically like to see the community stay intact."

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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