A blue crane lifted and aligned the six rectangular boxes into two neat stacks like Lego pieces. Only the boxes weighed up to 25,000 pounds each and people will eventually live in them.
They were assembled over several hours Tuesday into two rowhouses on a formerly vacant lot in East Baltimore Midway, a community largely ignored by developers in recent times even as projects have blossomed in the surrounding neighborhoods just north of downtown including Barclay, Greenmount West and Station North.
The project in the 500 block of E. 21st St. is small; eventually there will be eight houses. And the modular building method is somewhat unusual for Baltimore; the boxes were prefabricated in a Pennsylvania factory. But neighborhood and city leaders see the development by a father-son builder-architecture team from Howard County as the result of other investment and perhaps a catalyst for more.
“I see it as a beacon on the corner,” said Tamir Ezzat, who designed the boxes and persuaded his father, Taz Ezzat, who has built modular homes in the suburbs for decades, to go in on his “passion project” three years ago. “Maybe other developers will follow.”
Taz Ezzat’s company, Maryland Custom Builders, paid the city $23,280 for 7 lots in December, according to the city housing department.
The first two houses are expect to go on the market in January or February, after workers brick the facades, hook up pipes and wiring and finish the interiors with cabinets and other fixtures not included in the prefab boxes, which arrived Monday on six flatbed trucks. The expected price for the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath homes with garages will rival some of the new homes in neighboring communities at $299,000.
Linda Johnson, a long-time Midway resident and president of the Greenmount West Community Association, said Midway is like a lot of Baltimore neighborhoods. It once thrived as people moved in to be near good industrial jobs. But when businesses closed, people left and residents either left or grew old and died. Their children didn’t want the houses.
Many are vacant, including one next door to the new development. There is crime and trash, including in a once thriving community garden behind the project on 21st Street. Not a block away is a Boone Street Farm plot that was once a source of community pride but now less used.
Johnson said she’s grown frustrated watching development nearby, all on the other side of Greenmount Avenue, which divides Midway from Barclay.
“They never cross the street,” she said of city developers. “But this project give us hope. Hope is better than nothing, nothing positive, nothing to make the community better. People who remain here need something to be proud of and this give us something to build on.”
Another neighbor, Lowell Larsson, noted building permits in a couple of windows nearby, a sign good things may finally be happening. He hopes the eight modern modular homes will be the showpiece to draw more investment in the centrally located neighborhood, not far from the train station and near other big projects by the Maryland Institute College of Art, Johns Hopkins Hospital and others. Telesis Corp. built apartments across Greenmount Avenue.
Michael Braverman, commissioner of the city Department of Housing and Community Development, said it’s Midway’s turn.
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“This project is building off the success of the neighborhoods in Greenmount West, Barclay, the Arts District, and Central Baltimore,” he said. “This is an example of how making the right investment in the right places will spur additional private investment and create opportunities in the surrounding target areas.”
The housing department said this isn’t the city’s first prefab development, though they are not common and aren’t likely to become the norm.
Tamir Ezzat said his urban models came from Philadelphia. He said modular building is efficient, taking half the time to construct in a controlled indoor environment. Projects are assembled on site and locked up by day’s end.
But there are challenges to modular housing in cities, said Allison Arieff, the author of the book “Prefab” and editorial director of the nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.
The biggest problem is the single-lot infill sites generally available in cities, she said. Prefab houses can’t be built efficiently one at a time on an assembly line.
“Prefab hopefuls” also often struggle with financing, zoning and permitting, and strong city trade unions may object to too much outside factory work. Far-away factories add to transportation costs and burden the environment.
“If this father and son team has eight lots to work with (a rarity in a city!), that already puts them miles ahead,” she said in emailed comments. “If city departments are not only amenable but helpful even better.”