Jacques Kelly: Old Goucher working to emerge as a business and housing hub

Two years ago, when a husband-and-wife team of architects bought a Maryland Avenue insurance building, they had no experience as landlords of a commercial property.

Now that space at 2209 Maryland Ave. is bustling with tenants, with room left over for an attractive bookshop that opened last week.

“It’s a well-curated store, with books about design, cities and architecture,” said Megan Elcrat, principal architect of her 33:Design firm, of Co_Lab Books, the shop she and her husband operate.

“I felt like we needed to put a shop on the street,” she said, “and not practice architecture as if we were removed, up on the 13th floor. We wanted our business to be interconnected with the community.”

She and her husband, Phillip Jones, an architect associate with the firm, paid $300,000 for the one-story former insurance agency structure. The couple purchased something of a relic, with shag carpeting, flamboyant restroom wallpaper and large private executive offices.

Investing another $200,000 over the real estate purchase price, they have added skylights and created contemporary-style shared work spaces for 25 people. Today, the building is nearly fully leased. Many of the workers ride bikes to work.

“It was an ugly duckling building,” Elcrat said. “But we found there was more space in it than was initially indicated.”

Built about 1961, the structure was constructed for the Underwood Co., a typewriter business that was then offering data processing systems. It was next home to the Bendinger Brothers school uniform company, whose workers installed a basement conveyor belt system. It still works, moving boxes from the basement.

The 2200 block of Maryland Avenue is a characteristic section of the Old Goucher neighborhood, a part of midtown Baltimore named for the college campus that was once located here until the early 1950s, when the school moved to Towson. As Goucher College departed its old quarters — centered at St. Paul and 23rd streets — its former Latin and chemistry lecture halls, housed in gray-stone academic buildings, were transformed into business offices.

The neighborhood’s roomy, 1880s and 1890s buildings appealed to Baltimore’s advertising, engineering and architectural community. There was a business synergy when radio and television stations were nearby, and if an ad executive needed to take a client to lunch, what better spot than the Chesapeake Restaurant at Charles and Lanvale?

Kelly Cross, president of the old Goucher Community Association, said some of the neighborhood’s appeal is in its mix of office and residential uses, often on the same block.

Old Goucher is a place that celebrates its flexible zoning, architecture and housing stock, and has evolved into one of Baltimore’s most diverse enclaves. For example, Cross said, the community “has one of the largest transgender populations of color in the country.”

“Baltimore as a whole may be shrinking in population,” he said, “but we are growing here. Plenty of people are more than happy to be in this neighborhood.”

“We also have 43 social service entities here,” Cross added. “We are not going to be focused on pushing these services out; we are focusing on bringing more uses to Old Goucher.”

Others have seen Old Goucher as an opportunity for investment. Telesis Corp., working in conjunction with the city’s housing department, has renovated and sold 27 formerly vacant houses in Old Goucher. Most were for single-family occupants; several have an extra rental flat.

Cross noted that while it can be hard to find a parking space in Old Goucher Monday through Friday, the neighborhood starts to empty when it gets to be 3 p.m.

“We see an opportunity for night life — restaurants, bars and music venues — and would love to see it happen,” he said.

Residents are encouraged by projects such as the renovation undertaken by Elcrat and Jones, and the work by Telesis. Cross believes there are opportunities for even more, in both housing and commerce.

“The next phase for Old Goucher is for us to diversity more,” Cross said. “We see a need for smaller, affordable housing in a setting of historic preservation. We want to attract more businesses here and we want more night life.”


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