Auctioneer gives hope to old block

Once hot Howard St. area set to get facelift


Dreams are free. Walls to put around them cost $4,756,500.

That was the total price of eight buildings auctioned off yesterday in the 300 block of North Howard Street, until now a block untouched by the push to revitalize the downtown's west side. The buildings, sold in six parcels, were largely vacant and in need of repair, but under peeling paint and musty smells 20 bidders glimpsed the promise of a gentrifying corridor.

Over a frenzied 45 minutes, the prices climbed in $5,000 increments and the buildings were sold to five buyers.

Two of the five said they had no immediate plans, and another said he would build housing atop street-level stores. A fourth planned a jewelry exchange with multiple merchants selling their wares, and the last buyer's plans were unknown.

"I've been trying to buy the building for a long time, and I got it, and another one, too," said a smiling Ahmed Elsigai, who owns the King Tut jewelry store on the first floor of 300-302 N. Howard St., which he bought along with 304 N. Howard St. for about $1.3 million.

"I got a two-for-one deal. I want to fill the whole thing with jewelry merchants. I think it's a good idea in this market. I hope the city will help."

He said 304 N. Howard had been empty for at least eight years and he was glad to see it and the others on a path to redevelopment. Other buyers agreed.

The owners of the soon-to-close Hammerjacks nightclub also scooped up a pair of buildings.

Michael Hunter Jr. and Gavaskar Sharp and another investor paid about $1.23 million for 315 and 317-319 N. Howard St. Hunter said the west side could be returned to the thriving retail center it once was.

He pointed to Power Plant Live, a bustling hub of nightlife that replaced a gritty and abandoned swath, as an example of what can happen when investors focus. The city and the investors benefit, he said.

"This area is coming full circle, 360 degrees, because people are putting money back in," said Hunter.

His real estate adviser and architect, Russ Robertson, said the buildings would be transformed into a "mixed-use, transit-oriented development," taking advantage of the light rail that runs in front of the property.

Over at 301-303 and 305-307 Howard St., a principal of HSN LLC of Rockville, who declined to give his name, said the corridor would likely take another four or five years to blossom, and he planned to take some time to determine market demand for his buildings. They were the day's largest and most expensive at about $1.4 million.

Maxine Sisserman of Baltimore who bought 320 N. Howard St., next to another building she owns, said she would have to have its structural soundness assessed before deciding the best use.

The eighth building, 306-310 N. Howard, was bought by Montgomery County investors whose intentions were unknown.

The eight buildings were sold by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and the estate of Alan Berman. Joel Winegarden, the Weinberg Foundation's vice president of real estate, said he was "very satisfied" with the prices, all above their minimum bidding price.

"They are great buildings, very reasonably priced, and they should be easy to redevelop," he said.

The foundation, which still has substantial real estate holdings, is focusing on larger redevelopments and wanted to free up the auctioned buildings so they wouldn't continue to sit underused.

Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of Westside Renaissance Inc., watched the auction and said the sale prices reflected the "bullishness" for the west side. The 300 block, he said, had the greatest number of properties for which there were no redevelopment plans, although many individual buildings dotting North Howard Street still need attention.

"Hopefully this is going to initiate a process of reinvestment in the buildings," he said.

The auction drew 20 registered bidders and at least another 50 onlookers.

Paul Cooper, a vice president of Alex Cooper Auctioneers Inc., led the auction standing on a folding chair.

With the aid of a microphone, Cooper encouraged the bidders, who crowded the sidewalk and spilled into the street.

"I considered it a well-attended sale, and bidding was very competitive," he said. "That absolutely says something about the west side. Considering the prices they paid, I don't think the buyers are in a position to sit and hold. Rather I expect they'll proceed with development."

The winning bids

300-302 and 304 Howard St.: $1,312,500

301-303 and 305-307 Howard St.: $1,396,500

306-310 Howard St.: $661,500

315 Howard St.: $698,250

317-319 Howard St.: $535,500

320 Howard St.: $152,250

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