As residents organize, signs of downtown coming into its own

As downtown Baltimore residents organize, signs a neighborhood is coming into its own

At first, it was a little creepy.

When 25-year-old William King moved into 10 Light Street in 2015, he was one of the first residents roaming the empty halls of the former office building, a copper-capped landmark that is one of the biggest in downtown to converted into apartments.

He and his neighbors still call themselves "pioneers." But as his building and others have filled, the hollowed-out business district has started to take on the trappings of a neighborhood.

A small grocery store opened. So did a local cafe, a new gym and other shops. City officials put money toward nighttime police patrols and spiffing up a park. Now King and others are laying plans for a neighborhood association, which they hope will help cement the changes.

"It's becoming a community," King said. "You can feel it on the streets, and its momentum is what we want to keep going."

City leaders have worked for decades to draw residents to downtown to revive the area. The first apartment conversions began in the 1990s. But in recent years, those efforts have achieved a critical mass, most notably in the key blocks just north of the Inner Harbor.

The population in this downtown core — the area bordered by Pratt, President, Mulberry and Paca streets — has more than doubled in the last 15 years to more than 3,500, according to federal estimates. That's unusual growth in a city that lost more than 25,000 people during that time.

Now some say they want a voice to make the same demands on city officials that people in other areas do through their neighborhood associations, which often act as watchdogs for redevelopment plans, crime briefings, beautification efforts and other projects.

"Having a community association in itself, or a residents association, tends to establish a community," said Alexis Offner, who moved into 10 Light Street in February. "People feel like they have someone to go to if they have an issue in their area.

"It becomes more of a neighborhood if you have someone to help improve your life."

Plans for the group follow a building boom.

About 1,150 new apartments have gone on the market in the area in the last three years, and more are on the way, according to Delta Associates, a commercial real estate research firm that tracks new apartments in the region. 10 Light Street, with more than 400 units, is the largest.

The new supply has led rents to decline slightly, to an average of about $1,600 per month. But absorption remains strong: According to William Rich, head of Delta's multi-family practice, the vacancy rate fell from more then 17 percent in December 2015 to 10 percent at the end of last year.

Kirby Fowler is president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. The nonprofit was established 30 years ago to focus on improvements to the area.

"Downtown hasn't seen residential living like this since the 1800s," he said. "Already back in 2010 these trends were in place. Residents were moving in. … We hope in five years to see the numbers be even stronger."

The Bun Shop opened its second location on Light Street in April. Most of its business still comes from daytime traffic, owner Minh Vo said, but a growing number of customers stop in during the evening.

"There's an increasing trend of people hanging out at night," he said.

Residents skew young, single and newer to Maryland.

About 80 percent are between the ages of 18 and 44, and about three-quarters have never been married, according to 2015 American Community Survey estimates for the 401 census tract, the area for which residents are proposing the neighborhood association.

More than half were born outside Maryland. About 60 percent are white, and about 40 percent have a graduate or professional degree.

King grew up in Towson, graduated from Dulaney High School and studied at the Georgetown law school.

When he moved downtown, he said, he wanted to know what was happening around him, especially given how many new projects were underway.

"I was so excited about the potential for this cool, old neighborhood," he said. "I knew what I saw on the street, but because there was no community association, I didn't know what the status was, where they were, what the timeline was, what was coming in there and that kind of stuff."

He started distributing fliers last winter to try to get a group together, posting signs in local shops, talking to leasing agents and spreading the word on social media.

Offner, 32, who came to Baltimore from Texas to look for a job in global health, met King at their building and helped him distribute fliers.

The group has organized happy hours, outings to the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. theater and other spots, a tree planting, and a meet-and-greet with City Councilman Eric Costello, which drew dozens.

King said the email list now has about 150 names, and he's hoping to collect more.

"We're really trying to reach that last 25 percent of people who live here who might not have heard of us yet," he said. "We want to make sure they're in here weighing in on this also."

Leaders plan to incorporate early this year as the City Center Residents Association.

King consulted fellow lawyer Brian Levy, a former president of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, early in the process.

Levy said that he's not surprised residents would want their own group, even though the area already has several organizations, including the Downtown Partnership and other business groups.

"It seems natural that as the residential population has grown those residents would want a more direct say in the affairs of their neighborhood," he wrote in an email. "I am sure that this added voice representing downtown's residential population will be a positive force in downtown's renaissance."

Leaders chose the City Center name to help people to place the neighborhood, which has been targeted by various branding efforts over the years.

Kristine Dunkerton is executive director of the Community Law Center.

It's unusual to see a neighborhood association emerge in a zone dominated by renters, she said, but if it survives it could help give people in the area a voice they wouldn't have otherwise.

It could also show that a real neighborhood is taking root.

"The fact that there's discussion about this I think really is a positive sign that Baltimore could be more of a downtown with a 24-7 feel," she said.

Leaders say they're aware of the stereotypes of young, single, mobile renters — that they're not invested in their neighborhoods — and the potential for the momentum behind a volunteer group to sputter.

But they're optimistic that it will advance, largely because it's coming from the residents themselves.

"We're hoping we're going to be able to supersede that and be successful," said Kim Quinn, 59, the general manager of Charles Street Barre. "It's really a grassroots effort because the people are here."

Quinn moved from Roland Park into a two-bedroom apartment over the barre studio in June. She said she's been excited to see more people on the streets and more shops opening — and feels the area is getting more attention from property owners and the city, something the residents group will amplify.

"No one talks about the center of the city because everybody thinks it's this wasteland," she said. "We need to bring up the consciousness."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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