Douglas Armstrong pulled out a pocket flashlight Monday morning as he entered a dark, vacant row house in Remington.
"I'm an Eagle scout," he said.
Armstrong, of the Remington Neighborhood Alliance, was among several dozen area residents, redevelopers, builders and architects who toured at least some of the nine vacant row houses that Baltimore City wants to rehab as new housing in the 2800 block of Remington Avenue.
Interest is running high in the city's Request for Proposals to redevelop the city-owned houses, located within walking distance of a planned shopping center that woukld be anchored byWal-Mart..
Baltimore Housing Department officials had to bring in extra chairs Jan. 18, as a crowd of about 50 people from as far away as New York turned out for a prebid conference.
The audience didn't bat an eye when housing officials stressed that their preference is to have the houses redeveloped as new housing under the city's Vacants to Value program.
"We are strongly encouraging home ownership," Housing Department Deputy Commissioner Julie Day told the audience.
As expected, Donald Manekin, of Remington-based Seawall Development Corp., and Dan McCarthy, executive director of the nonprofit, Hampden-based Episcopal Housing Corp., were in attendance at the conference.
Seawall is best known for redeveloping two old mills as affordable apartments for teachers and office space for nonprofit groups. Seawall has also purchased six vacant row houses in Remington that it plans to redevelop on its own.
Episcopal Housing Corp. rehabs vacant houses, mostly in west Baltimore and Collington Square near Johns Hopkins Hospital. But Episcopal Housing wants to "expand its reach" into the Remington-Hampden area, McCarthy said.
"I think it's a natural progression," he said.
The audience also included representatives of New York City-based Urban Development Partners, a real estate development company that specializes in large-scale, mixed-use urban developments, according to its Web site.
Also attending was a representative of Integrated Construction, in east Baltimore.
Julie Tice, a Federal Hill-based architect, was there representing a developer, Brick by Brick Solutions, based in Ellicot City. Also there was Jacob Danyali, of Pikesville, a private developer and a member of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, a nonprofit that "provides educational, legislative and networking services to businesses and individuals concerned with the welfare of the residential rental real estate market," according to the association's Web site.
Jim Burch, marketing director for Kennedy Personnel, a staffing agency, was there, too, and said he was interested because he thought the project would generate a lot of construction jobs.
Housing officials said they were surprised by the turnout.
"A lot of familiar faces, a lot of new faces," Day said.
"I'm pleasantly surprised," said Manekin, a champion of affordable housing to keep young teachers from leaving the city. "It's a remarkable location with a neat set of houses."
Many people at the conference expressed an interest in seeing the boarded-up houses for themselves, even though Day said there wasn't much too see. Housing officials quickly arranged a tour, similar to a real estate open house, for Jan. 23 from noon to 3 p.m., but warned that people who wanted to enter the houses would have to sign a waiver releasing the city from legal liability. Day also asked visitors to be sensitive, because most, but not all of the houses in the block are vacant.
The three-story houses are all between 1,000 and 1,100 square feet, Day said.
"If you've been by the properties, you know they're bricked up," Day said. "I think it's safe to say they're gut rehabs."
One of the houses survived a fire about five years ago, Day said.
And at least one of the houses has a collapsed roof, said Armstrong, who attended the conference.
The city issued its Request for Proposals in December, and is offering the nine houses in the 2800 block of Remington Avenue "as a bundle," Day said.
The houses were previously owned by the Baltimore Housing Authority and were turned over to the Housing Department for rehabbing under the Vacants to Value program.
Also attending the conference was City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who introduced a bill Jan. 9 to change the zoning for the block from B3, a commercial zone, to R7, residential.
Clarke said the B3 zoning designation was an error by the city and that none of the houses have ever been used commercially.
Day said the city is offering financial incentives to city employees, first-time home buyers and employees of Hopkins, whose Homewood campus is nearby.
Also nearby is the site of the planned 25th Street Station shopping center, to be anchored by Wal-Mart.
"Remington is getting a lot of interest with the $70 million development coming," Greater Remington Improvement Association President Judith Kunst said in December as the city was preparing the RFP. "We are happening."
Kunst also attended the prebid conference last week.
"I think it's a strong community," Day told the audience.
Potential bidders have until Feb. 17 at noon to make written proposals. A public hearing is tentatively scheduled for March 7. A city selection panel is scheduled to meet March 14 and to award the contract March 21.
Day said proposals will be judged partly on the capacity and experience of the developer, as well as on the overall feasibility of the proposal and its potential benefits to the city.
"If you want a third-floor master suite with a spa, have it," Day said. "That's not the way it looks now."
Rain didn't dampen the enthusiasm of people who had a look around during the open house. McCarthy of Episcopal Housing Services was there with a team of people that included an architect and several real estate agents.
Alicia Corson, of Towson-based PenCor Propertie, looked past the debris inside and the lack of electricity inside several houses, and said they seem structurally sound.
"I think bricking them up is actually better" for preserving them," Corson said.
No one was happier to see the visitors than Delores Aye, 48, a single mother of four children, two of them still living at home in one of the block's few occupied rowhouses, with a vase of flowers in the front window. Aye said she was surprised but happy to see a city sign posted on the vacant house next to hers, announcing the proposal to change the zoning from business to residential.
Aye, who lives across the street from Anderson Body Shop, described the neighborhood as nice and quiet, and said she would look forrward to more neighbors — "as long as we don't have the wrong type of people moving into the neighborhood."