By this time next year, Reservoir Hill could have not one, but two small neighborhood cafes — a new step for a neighborhood tagged "up-and-coming" for more than 20 years.
This month, a family of out-of-state transplants signed a lease to open a coffee shop on Madison Avenue, hoping for an October launch. Farther east on Whitelock Street, the owners of The Bun Shop in Mount Vernon are exploring plans for a soup-and-sandwich place at Tune Up City, a former auto shop.
Two decades ago, when the city decided that razing Reservoir Hill's commercial strip was the only way to quash the neighborhood's thriving drug trade, such plans might have seemed like a pipe dream. But some see emerging signs of opportunity.
"In the time I've been here, I've seen a steady, if not super-quick, influx of people," said Minh Vo, 30, who started The Bun Shop in Mount Vernon in 2012 with friends and has lived in Reservoir Hill since he moved to Baltimore about five years ago. "I'm confident that if we can make a really nice space … we can bring people into the neighborhood to eat there."
The city and other nonprofits have steered money to Reservoir Hill for years, hoping to prime a market-led revitalization of a neighborhood with large, historic homes and a central location, tucked between Druid Hill Park to the north and Bolton Hill to the south.
Improvements have been slow to come.
About a quarter of the neighborhood's housing stock stood vacant in 2010 after the crowd of investors who flocked to the neighborhood during the housing boom dwindled. Crime remains an issue. Since 2014, there have been three murders and three shootings in the neighborhood, including a shooting on a playground earlier this month.
But the neighborhood, which developed in the late 1800s for wealthy Jewish families and later fell into decline, is slowly changing.
Between 2009 and 2013, population in the neighborhood's two census tracts increased 5.5 percent, according to American Community Survey estimates. More white people have moved in, as have more people with college degrees.
Since 2010, the number of vacant homes has dropped by more than 180. The median monthly rent topped $800 in 2013, up by an average of nearly $200. Median income — though still lower than $30,000 — also increased.
Where the city demolished commercial properties in the 1990s, there's now a park and urban farm.
Richard Gwynallen, who started working for the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council in 2003, said he's always been uncomfortable when people called the neighborhood "up-and-coming" but he believes it has changed for the better.
"From when I came to now, the community is a ton cleaner, there's a whole lot more to do," he said. "People are coming, they're having their children, they're staying. Those are all indications of successful activity."
Martin "Marty" Cadogan, a 53-year-old real estate attorney turned investor, bought his first apartment building in Reservoir Hill in 2010 for $420,000 after a foreclosure and now owns 47 units in the neighborhood, charging more than $1,000 a month for two-bedroom, one-bathroom units. As rents rise elsewhere, Reservoir Hill has become more popular, he said.
"Reservoir Hill is still affordable, and once people come into the neighborhood, they really fall in love," said Cadogan, who works with partners he declined to name.
Cadogan, the longtime campaign treasurer for former Gov. Martin O'Malley, purchased the large brick Tune Up City building in December for $294,500, with the hope of redeveloping it for retail. Part of the back warehouse already is leased to a car restoration business. In addition to the Bun Shop owners, he is talking to a wellness center, he said.
Long-delayed plans for retail at 2501 Madison Ave. are also in the works, with a lease signed this month with a family that plans to open the Dovecote Cafe in October, said Madeline Beal, 35, who bought the property with her husband in 2006 intending to open a coffee shop. (Those plans changed after she got a new job and had three children in the years it took to find stable tenants, secure financing and navigate city permitting, she said.)
Dovecote Cafe co-owner Aisha Pew, 35, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Oakland, Calif., said her family hopes to fill a need in the neighborhood for places for people to walk to and meet. Her mother, a former social worker, and uncle, who moved to Baltimore a few years ago, will do the cooking, while she manages the front of the shop.
"The reason you're in an urban neighborhood … is because you want a sense of community," said Pew, who also hopes to close on a house in Reservoir Hill with her partner, Cole, in the next few weeks. "Without a commercial district, it's not going to breed or attract new energy to be the 'coming' part of 'up-and-coming.' "
Other projects are in the works as well.
At the Madison Park North Apartments — a troubled complex known as "Murder Mall" — the last tenant moved out in late spring, starting the clock on a 10-month deadline for demolition determined in a settlement last year between the owner ,Tricap Management Inc., and the city. Al Barry of AB Associates, who represents the owner, said they hope to close with a buyer by the end of the summer.
On blighted Callow Avenue, officials are slated to gather Tuesday for a ceremony celebrating the $4.6 million rehab of nine long-vacant homes by a development team that includes Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., Druid Heights Community Development Corp. and UrbanBuilt. The first is expected to be finished later this year. Reservoir Hill also is slated to receive one of the first new schools under the $1 billion construction plan.
"The fact that people, entrepreneurs are looking at commercial in this neighborhood says a lot about the progress that's been made," said Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods, which has been working in Reservoir Hill for more than a decade and has invested at least $21 million there. "I think it says the neighborhood is stabilized."
Some are quick to beat back questions about gentrification, pointing to the remaining vacancies and more than 1,000 income-restricted units.
Damon Grattan, 38, a Montgomery County firefighter who bought a home in the neighborhood in 2012, said sometimes tensions between new arrivals and old-timers can flare, but at neighborhood meetings, nearly everyone — new arrivals and old-timers both — appears to welcome a place to get a bite to eat.
"Everybody is thirsting for some kind of commercial activity," he said.
Pew — who has watched in dismay as gentrification changes her other hometowns — acknowledged that it's something on her mind. But, she said, the tipping point occurs when longtime residents are forced to leave, not when a new business fills a long-empty space.
"We do believe that there's already a community there and that community, which we will be a part of, is deserving of a cafe where we can sit and enjoy each other's company," she said.