City moves to get 200 properties

Target parcels surround vacant American Brewery

Sun Follow-up

October 18, 2006|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN REPORTER

Hoping to set the stage for the future renewal of one of the city's most distressed areas, officials are moving to acquire about 200 abandoned properties around the historic American Brewery building in a long-neglected corner of East Baltimore.

The 30-odd properties closest to the brewery - which has been vacant for more than three decades but is slated to be renovated as the local headquarters of a nonprofit social services agency - will be shored up to prevent further deterioration, while the rest will be held until the city decides what to do with them.

"Over the long term, it gives us the ability to assemble enough property to create redevelopment opportunities," said Michael Bainum, the city's assistant housing commissioner for land resources. "Right now, ownership is so diffuse and the condition of the properties is such that private development is not going to come in in a significant way."

The acquisition plans, which could take as long as a year, represent the city's second major step in recent months to address the decay around the brewery.

This summer, the city applied for a state grant to help acquire and demolish one of the most decayed blocks in the area, saying the demolition would create a cleared site that could attract developers while enhancing the desirability of the brewery and two vacant school buildings nearby.

The area was the subject of a two-part series published earlier this year in The Sun, "A Neighborhood Abandoned." The series described life in a community that had lost 60 percent of its population, leaving behind a landscape where about half the properties were vacant buildings and empty lots, and that had been largely bypassed for years by efforts at renewal.

The city says there are no immediate plans about what to do with the properties once they're acquired.

Yesterday, residents on blocks surrounding the city-owned brewery complex - which includes the five-story, 19th-century brewhouse and a vacant former bottling plant - expressed a mixture of satisfaction and skepticism at the city's intention to begin accumulating abandoned properties on their blocks.

`A good idea'

"It would be a good idea, so people won't be going up in them and starting fires," said Milton Hawkins, who rents a house next door to two boarded-up buildings in the 1600 block of N. Patterson Park Ave.

A 47-year-old house painter who lives with his fiancee and his two daughters, Hawkins bought a shell last year for $5,500 five blocks away, which he is renovating for his future home. He said he would be interested in working on some of the properties the city is acquiring as well.

"I would like to buy some myself if the city would let them go," he said. "I would fix them up myself."

Around the corner on the 2200 block of E. Lanvale St. - a street that faces the bottling plant and where two-thirds of the rowhouses are boarded up - Tyrone Berrain echoes Hawkins' assessment.

"I think it's a good idea," said Berrain, 50, a retired city sanitation worker who rents a rowhouse with his wife and four children. "They can renovate them. Even if they don't, tear them down. They're not doing any good standing there."

Down the block, Eva Walker said she has heard talk about plans for the brewery complex and the area in the past but has seen little action. Walker, who has lived in her house since the early 1950s, doubts things are going to be different this time.

"I don't think they're going to do anything anyway," said Walker, 96, a retired schoolteacher.

Two weeks ago, a rental property on the block attracted about half a dozen bidders for an auction, eventually selling for $24,500. Paul Sobwick, an auctioneer with Auction Brokers who had presided over auctions in the area with few, if any, bidders, said the house "went for a very good price."

"Once you start to see improvement on the street, you're going to see a slow turnaround in people saying, `I feel comfortable putting my money here,'" he said.

Yesterday, the only visible sign of activity in the area was a work crew putting boards up in the vacant and broken windows of the brewhouse and bottling plant.

Workers had received permission to stabilize the structure pending final agreement to turn the property over to a group led by developer Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse. The group, American Brewery LLC, plans to transform the American Brewery into the Baltimore headquarters of Humanim Inc., a nonprofit that specializes in vocational training and support services for people with disabilities.

Humanim, which will own the American Brewery building once renovations are completed, is marketing federal tax credits to defray the anticipated $17 million cost of renovations, according to Henry E. Posko Jr., the nonprofit's president and CEO.

The bottling plant, which is expected to cost an additional $16 million to rehab and is still seeking tenants, will be financed separately, he said.

Critical mass

Posko said he is "encouraged" by the city's plans to acquire properties around the brewery complex.

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