Goolst, 50, a real estate agent who lives in Baltimore County, was stunned and delighted to see Harbor East rise out of what had been largely vacant or unused land and hopes that there might be similar tax benefits and other public assistance for development in Little Italy.

For some, though, the neighborhood's old-school style is the selling point.

"I like to tell people, Little Italy ain't Disneyland," said Mel Stachura, president of the Little Italy Property Owners Association. "It's a real neighborhood."

Stachura, who isn't Italian, grew up in Canton and moved to Little Italy in 2002, precisely because of the old-school feel. "It's hard to find properties for sale here because we're still a word-of-mouth market — 'I heard Rosa is selling her house.'"

He said the neighborhood sometimes is overlooked in the face of newer, trendier areas — once even getting left off the city's official tourist map. But while he enjoys having the added shopping and dining offered by Harbor East, he hopes Little Italy can preserve its character.

"We certainly are concerned about losing our identity," Stachura said. "We don't want to be Harbor East North."