Neighbors join forces to buy Patterson Park building

'Big commitment' for a neighborhood used to activism

May 23, 2010|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Residents of Baltimore's Patterson Park have gone to unusual lengths to protect the fabric of their neighborhood.

When blight and drugs rapidly spread across the community in the 1990s in a way all too familiar for Baltimore, a resident kick-started a middle-class revival by buying and renovating rowhouses — hundreds of them. The effort turned boarded-up and vacant buildings into homes again.

Then the housing bust this decade caused the nonprofit development company he founded to take a U-turn from wildly successful to bankrupt. Now its unsold homes are being auctioned off, and lenders are trying to find buyers for its commercial properties. The nonprofit's headquarters — which had become a popular neighborhood gathering place — is vacant and dark.

Not to be deterred, neighbors are again fighting for their community. While they can't simply pick up where the community development corporation left off, eight residents decided to pool their own money and buy the gathering place — for about $400,000, including closing costs and other incidentals.

It was an extraordinary act in a sometimes un-neighborly era, when investing in your community typically doesn't mean much more than starting a neighborhood watch or cleaning up streets. The acquisition "is a big commitment," observed John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington.

None of the neighbors-turned-partners had ever owned anything pricier than a rowhouse until their offer to buy the headquarters building was accepted by the lender this month. They haven't managed commercial real estate, either. What they do have is a shared conviction that the fate of the building is important to Patterson Park — enough to stake their savings on it.

"We just believe in the neighborhood that much," said Steve Gondol, one of the purchasers, whose day job is at the nonprofit organization Live Baltimore.

Patterson Park has become a Sesame Street sort of place, a close-knit collection of blocks where residents turn out in force to plant trees, clean alleys and have fun together. Many moved in during the past decade, attracted by the rapid revitalization, affordable rowhouses and 137-acre park.

That's why the Patterson Park Community Development Corp.'s collapse at the end of 2008 sent shock waves through the neighborhood it helped build. The concern wasn't only that the nonprofit would no longer be there to promote the area and woo newcomers. Residents also were anxious about who would buy the nonprofit's remaining portfolio of partially renovated homes, rented-out buildings and other properties — more than 100 in all.

Residents especially wanted to know who would end up with the beautifully renovated headquarters. Its location at Baltimore Street and Linwood Avenue is symbolic for a neighborhood once known as "Baltimore-Linwood." The first-floor restaurant there — called "Three…" — doubled as the community living room until it closed in December, hurt by the recession.

The worry was that the property would sit vacant for years. Or get bought up by someone who would want to drastically change the building's use. Carlos Plazas, an accounting manager who became one of the eventual purchasers, said residents were convinced a restaurant could succeed there but knew that others might not agree.

Neighbors kept hoping for a white-knight group to buy the place and make it a neighborhood focal point again. Then four individuals and two couples had a wild and scary idea: They could become that group.

"We all got swept into this by the seat of our pants," said Jen Di Mattina, 29, a project coordinator for a medical ethics review board who joined the partnership with husband, Joe.

"Expediency trumped judgment," added fellow purchaser Owen Gray, 35, laughing.

It reminded them so strongly of the folk tale about the little red hen — who plants wheat seed, harvests the grain and turns it into bread all by herself — that they named themselves Red Hen LLC.

When the building went on the auction block in February, they were the highest bidders. But M&T Bank didn't accept their $298,000 offer. It was a fraction of the more than $790,000 the bank was owed, let alone the building's $1 million appraisal before the market slumped.

The bank thought it could do better. Another auction was scheduled for May.

The Red Hen folks used the time well. They sought advice from Healthy Neighborhoods Inc. and other groups interested in community development. They lined up prospective tenants, including a restaurateur. They pored through books about limited liability corporations. And they kept making offers to M&T.

"Persistent," said Paul Cooper with Alex Cooper Auctioneers, which ran the first auction and was on tap to handle the second. "Very persistent."

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