Station North looks for apartments

As the Station North arts and entertainment district matures, community leaders are setting their sights on another long-promised part of the neighborhood's renaissance — market-rate apartments.

The neighborhood, once a handful of nightspots surrounded by seedy parking lots, has grown into a small hotbed of restaurants, theaters and bars, with activity pushing up Charles Street and east and west along North Avenue and thousands flooding the area this summer for concerts and other events.

Now community leaders say they want to see developers move forward with market-rate residential projects in order to usher in the next wave of revitalization.

"We think getting some momentum now is important," said Joe McNeely, executive director of the Central Baltimore Partnership Inc., a nonprofit that works with community groups and is helping to lead development in Station North. "Most of the things that have been happening are commercial projects. We need some more residential development in the area. We need more bodies, we need more customers, and we need more feet on the street."

Community leaders said they have seen signs that major landowners in the area are becoming more serious about possible projects.

Ernst Valery of Ernst Valery Investments and SA&A Development, part of the team that reopened the former Chesapeake Restaurant last summer, said he hopes to present plans to the city by March for a roughly $15 million midrise apartment building with 80 to 110 units on parking lots behind the restaurant.

Community leaders said Washington development firm Monument Realty is working with Washington restaurateur Tony Cheng, who controls about a dozen parcels in Station North, on a similar project. Cheng's holdings include the well-placed parking lot at the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street.

A spokeswoman for Monument declined to comment.

"I think things are speeding up behind the scenes," said Ben Stone, executive director of Station North Arts & Entertainment Inc., a nonprofit focused on arts programming in the neighborhood "There are no shovels in the ground yet, but I think conversations are picking up."

Proposals for residences have been on the table for years. A 2008 master plan developed by the city called for 1,900 new units in the neighborhood.

Last month, the development team behind the City Arts apartments, which opened in 2010 with 69 subsidized units for artists at Greenmount Avenue and Oliver Street, presented the city with designs for another 60 apartments a block away between Lafayette and Lanvale streets. Construction of the new building is expected to start next year.

The $14 million City Arts II building is expected to receive $12 million in low-income-housing tax-credit financing, according to Nancy Rase, CEO of Homes for America, which is working with The Reinvestment Fund and Jubilee Baltimore on the project. Most of the units would rent to artists with incomes at 60 percent of the area median, or $35,100 for one person, with 15 affordable, handicapped-accessible units, she said. The state determined rental limits that come with the financing translate to about $875 a month for one person under 2014 rates.

"We're excited," Rase said. "The first one was such a huge success."

But even as projects such as City Arts fall into place — and apartment construction flourishes in other parts of the city — market-rate residential development has been slower to appear.

"Station North is by no means a strong real estate market," said Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, which in addition to the City Arts buildings is working on the renovation of the Centre Theatre, where the Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute College of Art both plan to locate their film programs next year. "I think it will become one, but it isn't one yet."

Cheng, who acquired most of his properties between 2006 and 2007, helped pay for the 2008 community plan, which called for redevelopment of some of his prime parcels and eventually, 650 new residences in the area proposed as "Asia Town" — the cluster of his properties between North Avenue and 21st Street.

There were few signs of progress until about two years ago, when Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels had dinner with Cheng and his family.

"I think we wanted to bring a little bit of a point of view that he has been patient and was prescient in buying property that has enormous potential … and asking him when he was going to think about beginning to develop it," said Andy Frank, a special adviser to the president who attended the dinner with Daniels and Cheng's family and is involved with the university's efforts in the neighborhood.

The meeting with Hopkins spurred the Cheng family to connect Monument to the project, as well as to allow Stone's organization to lease the 4 W. North Ave "Ynot lot" and use it for concerts and other events, community leaders said. Efforts to reach Cheng, who pleaded guilty this spring to a misdemeanor charge related to attempted bribery of the Washington Taxicab Commission, through attorneys and at the family's signature Washington restaurant were not successful.

Frank said he believes Cheng is committed to the area and expects to see a project move forward in the next two or three years.

McNeely said he is hopeful about the prospects for both projects, pointing to the Fitzgerald Apartments near the Mount Royal light rail station as an example of the kind of nascent demand for rentals in the area. A studio there rents for more than $1,600 per month and the building is 94 percent leased.

The 30 units at Railway Express Lofts, which opened near Penn Station in 2008 and where rents start at $1,300 a month, are 100 percent leased, said Tony Ambridge, a former city councilman and partner in the project.

Even if market-rate apartments remain several years away, optimism about the area is high enough that some already worry about gentrification.

"We inherently think gentrification is good, but gentrification that displaces people is bad for business and bad for communities," said Valery, who wants units in his planned building to remain affordable. "Station North is going to be that sort of dense, multicultural neighborhood that doesn't get achieved in other places in Baltimore."

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