City's east-side renaissance spreads

In what would be the biggest single residential development in Baltimore in recent memory, banker Edwin F. Hale Sr. plans to build more than 1,000 upscale condos, apartments and townhouses in Greektown in a project that would radically transform the historically blue-collar neighborhood and spread the city's east-side renaissance.

The $200 million venture, proposed for an industrial swath several blocks south of Eastern Avenue, is expected to jump-start the gentrification of yet another working-class neighborhood and follow a pattern extending from Locust Point to South Baltimore to Canton.

Hale, chairman and chief executive of Baltimore-based First Mariner Bank and owner of the Baltimore Blast soccer team, said yesterday that he has teamed up with Vienna, Va.-based KSI Services Inc. to build the development on about 15 acres where Bob's Transport and Storage Co. operates a trucking company.

The developers have a contract for an undisclosed sum for the site, contingent on rezoning, and hope to begin construction next spring.

"This is a great market here, because of the proximity to I-95 and the jobs that are here and the amenities around here," Hale said yesterday. "Empty-nesters are moving back in from the county to here, and Washingtonians are using this as a bedroom community."

Hale earlier teamed with KSI, a developer of planned residential communities and mixed-use projects, to build a 504-unit condo portion at his Canton Crossing, a $500 million mixed-use project about a mile and a half away at Boston and Clinton streets.

"We see Baltimore as an urban extension of D.C.," Ed Murn, a KSI vice president, said yesterday. "With the activity we've been seeing in Washington and in Baltimore, there's a good demand for the long term as people want to move back into the city and enjoy the 24/7 environment."

Plans, still in the early stages, call for an estimated 600 condos in four 12-story buildings; 250 apartments in one 12-story building; and 179 townhouses - 101 three-story units and 78 smaller "2-over-2" townhouses, one unit stacked atop another.

The new development would nearly double the number of homes in Greektown, a neighborhood of mostly modest, two-story brick rowhouses east of Highlandtown known as a cultural and religious hub of Baltimore's Greek community.

Prices would be from the mid- $200,000s to about $400,000, far higher than the average $156,532 selling price last year for the 21224 ZIP code, where the project is situated. The average home price has risen 131 percent since 1999.

"He would be aggressively pushing the marketplace at that price point," said Tracy Gosson, executive director Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes city living.

"But the city has demonstrated that there is plenty of room for growth. ... You've got a major job base there that is active and growing and with above-average incomes. And you have the undeniable character of Greektown. You can't re-create that in White Marsh."

Though the project faces months of planning and design reviews, city officials and community members welcomed yesterday what would be the neighborhood's first new homes in decades. They said the project could help spur economic development, increase property values, boost local businesses and attract new residents to a city with a shrinking population and tax base.

"This will be a real shot in the arm for Eastern Avenue," said Bob Santoni, owner of 75-year-old Santoni's Supermarket on East Lombard Street. "There's a whole renaissance taking place here as a kind of an offshoot of Canton and Fells Point. It's been remarkable. I get excited when I'm driving up and down the street and see Formstone coming off the houses."

Stelios Spiliadis, chairman of the board of Greektown Community Development Corp. and owner of the Black Olive restaurant in Fells Point, said Hale has shown that he is willing to work with the community as it undergoes an economic transition.

The neighborhood once flourished as a blue-collar community but, as manufacturing jobs dwindled, younger generations left for jobs elsewhere.

"Ed Hale helps us because he's developing the type of housing that would be attractive to that population. He has the money, and we have the dream," Spiliadis said. "And [the new homes] will remove the gases of the trucks, which were always a curse for the community."

The developer seems to understand that "we need to make sure the healthy members of our community are not pushed out by such a development," he said.

Otis Rolley III, city planning director, said his office has not received the plans but that he supports the concept.

"It's just another indication of the health of the city," Rolley said. "If it was just a bubble or a fluke, it would have stopped at the water's edge, but people feel it makes sense to live in the city."

Hale, who was born in Highlandtown and went to first grade there before moving to Sparrows Point, said the time is right for investment in Highlandtown and Greektown.

"It's a great area to be from and put money in and invest in, and that's what I'm doing," Hale said. "It takes a little bit of guts. I believe in this area. The time is right. The demand is here."

That's partly because of the expansion under way at Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus and at the National Institutes of Health, both nearby, Hale and city planners said.

They said the new homes

could help provide housing for the hundreds of scientific researchers and support staff who are expected to work at the NIH's 563,000-square-foot Biomedical Research Center at Bayview, to open next year.

"It's betting to a certain extent on the belief that that area is going to continue to develop," said John McIlwain, a senior fellow for housing for the Urban Land Institute, a Washington research nonprofit.

"And given the direction the development has been going on the north side of the harbor, that's reasonable," McIlwain said. "That's a part of Baltimore that's a fun, lively and interesting area and has been growing. And when you have a developer like a KSI making that kind of commitment, that's a very positive statement about that part of Baltimore and its future."

City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose district includes Highlandtown and Greektown, said he supports the project and is prepared to introduce a bill to change the property's zoning to residential once he receives a proposal from the developers.

"It's really important for us to have new residential housing stock in the city, and by not putting in any type of retail or office, it will encourage people to use the Greektown/Highland- town area for shopping. I hope it has a spinoff effect to encourage further development of the Greektown/Highlandtown shopping district, " he said.

He expects the new homes to accelerate the appreciation of properties in Greektown.

"People are already buying in Greektown because it has good, solid housing stock; it's a stable community and you can buy there at half the price you can buy in Canton," Kraft said. "But this will bring more of a focus to the Greektown area."

Mayor Martin O'Malley had not seen the plans, spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said yesterday.

"We look forward to seeing them," Guillory said. "Our strategy has always been growth, both residential and commercial."

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