On the streets outside his East Baltimore church, the Rev. H. Walden Wilson II sees change.
An old pumping station is being transformed into a campus for food production. A wellness center will rise on the site of a former industrial laundry. The hulking Victorian brewery on North Gay Street is now a place people can go for career development, mentoring and mental health treatment. Investors are starting to redevelop old rowhouses.
And now, in this swath of East Baltimore north across the tracks from Johns Hopkins Hospital, the $30 million renovation of the dilapidated A. Hoen & Co. Lithograph printing plant, abandoned a generation ago, will get into full swing soon. Within a year, the massive, brick structure will become a hub for workforce training, apprenticeships and literacy classes, drawing hundreds of people a day and bringing life to the community’s long desolate and sometimes violent streets.
In his 41 years shepherding Israel Baptist Church, Wilson and his congregation have confronted drug dealers and bought up 80 properties around the church’s historic sanctuary. But the minister did not think he would ever see reinforcements arrive.
“We can already see a renaissance taking place — and it’s coming fast,” Wilson said. “I never thought the day would come when I would see this. We got so used to the blight and the abandoned buildings, the crime.
“I see hope. We can return to the days of old, and maybe better.”
City officials, developers and longtime residents hope the scattering of redevelopment projects, driven by nonprofits, is reaching critical mass, but others question whether the area can attract real private investment and people willing to live there who can choose to live elsewhere.
Spanning dozens of forsaken city blocks, the community around these projects — including Broadway East, Collington Square, Middle East and Oliver — features street after street lined with abandoned houses with plywood nailed over windows and doors and collapsed roofs. This stretch of East Baltimore has roughly 2,000 boarded-up houses — 12 percent of Baltimore’s total — staggering unemployment, challenged schools and troubling crime. It offers a visual symbol of the city’s postindustrial slide, especially to the thousands of Amtrak passengers who pass by each day on the line between Washington and New York.
South of the train tracks, a $1.8 billion redevelopment project near Hopkins’ medical campus is starting to take shape. Launched around the time today’s high school seniors were toddlers, the 88-acre project by East Baltimore Development Inc. aims to establish a biotech hub with shops and homes at a variety of prices that will allow workers from custodians to lab technicians to physicians to rent or buy.
That slow-moving and controversial project offers a cautionary tale for how long it takes to turn hope into reality. Only now are a few former residents among the 740 families displaced years ago starting to return.
Even with big investment from nonprofits and state money to tear down vacants north of the tracks, some remain skeptical of a widespread East Baltimore revival. They doubt whether such public investment is enough to overcome Baltimore’s perennial struggles with crime and providing quality education and to attract private developers and homebuyers.
Jack BeVier, a member of Baltimore’s Small Developers Collective, is not convinced. The test, he said, will be whether people want to take out 30-year mortgages to live there.
“To transform the neighborhood, if we’re able to continue the momentum, will take people who feel safe enough to want to sleep there,” said BeVier, a partner at The Dominion Group. “Success would be having people’s dream to buy a home in the neighborhood where they already live, not to move to Randallstown or Rosedale.”
That won’t come easily. The city’s crime data show these neighborhoods had eight homicides last year, nine carjackings, 40 shootings, 75 street robberies and 124 burglaries. And the area’s schools are challenged; most are ranked two out of five stars under the state’s new accountability measurement. The Henderson-Hopkins school on Ashland Avenue earned three stars.
But, bit by bit, the area’s boosters say, things are changing.
Southern Baptist Church tore down the old Bugle Rental, an industrial laundry and uniform service, to make way for a wellness center on North Chester Street in Broadway East. The church bought out liquor stores and rebuilt the Mary Harvin Senior Center after the 60-unit apartment building, then under construction, was torched during the 2015 rioting.
Nearby, inside the old American Brewery on North Gay Street, the nonprofit Humanim runs dozens of programs designed to connect people to workforce training, jobs and, ultimately, economic equity. South along Gay Street, closer to the tracks, the Food Hub, an urban farming and commercial kitchen venture, is operating at the old Eastern Pumping Station.
A Japanese-style dojo and fitness studio has opened nearby on North Collington Avenue, near Israel Baptist. At East Biddle and North Chester streets, restoration of the Hoen complex is spurring dozens of home sales and rehabs on the surrounding blocks.
Bill Struever, a developer tied to many of the area projects, including Hoen, is on the hunt for an iconic sign to sit atop the old warehouse, much like the Mr. Boh sign Struever installed on the old National Bohemian brewery in Brewers Hill. He said he wants to send a message to the Amtrak passengers who ride along the rail line: The desolation and despair that have consumed the community for decades are over.
“What an opportunity to transform the energy and image of our city,” said Struever, principal of Cross Street Partners.
To spruce up the area’s neglected streets, Southern Baptist wants to add trees and landscaping and improve neighborhood parks. American Communities Trust, developer of the Food Hub, is helping brighten community bus stops and the areas below the elevated train tracks with designs and artistic lighting, similar to the underpass on St. Paul Street near Mercy Medical Center. The goal is to entice the budding prosperity on the south side near Hopkins to the impoverished north side by enabling people’s free and safe movement throughout the community, as they work, shop and socialize.
“When people riding the rail line look down, they will see pocket parks and secret gardens and beautiful spots,” said China Boak Terrell, CEO of American Communities Trust.
Ella Durant, president of the Collington Square Neighborhood Association, said the Hoen restoration will give the people who live in the downtrodden community a “jump-start.” She believes the area will return to what it was when she was young: a place where workers, such as aides at Hopkins or Kennedy Krieger Institute, can afford to buy a house and walk to their jobs.
“Now that the opportunities are going to be here, I really think this side of Baltimore will just blossom,” Durant said.
Durant grew up in the neighborhood and, with her husband, Bruce, bought the house where her parents raised her. The couple watched as the descendants of families from East Baltimore’s heyday — from the 1950s into the 1970s when employment at the old steel mill and other factories was plentiful and the city’s population was growing — moved away and left the old houses to fall into ruin.
The empty Hoen plant, closed in 1981, was a reminder of what was lost. Durant described taking a tour of Hoen as a third-grader, watching the workers print labels, maps and color publications for National Geographic.
Struever is rehabilitating the 85,000-square-foot Hoen complex for the nonprofit Strong City Baltimore, which will move its headquarters, adult literacy classes and $15 million operation there from Charles Village. Associated Builders and Contractors of Greater Baltimore, a Towson-based trade association, plans to consolidate its half dozen regional training facilities at Hoen when the building is completed in early 2020. City Life Community Builders will offer construction industry training. Negotiations are underway with other tenants, including a cafe.
Strong City CEO Karen D. Stokes said as many as 1,000 people are expected to be in and out of the building each day when it’s fully occupied.
Michael Braverman, Baltimore’s housing chief, called the area’s many projects “an extraordinary flurry of activity,” including the restoration or demolition of a hundred rowhouses in the blocks surrounding Hoen. In the larger community, more than 300 homes are to be razed between now and June 2020.
The city’s role has been extensive: clustering blocks of property through code enforcement efforts, forcing abandoned homes to auction for rehabilitation, demolishing others.
One of the most recent deals came in January when the city’s spending panel signed off on an agreement to sell 17 abandoned houses and one vacant property to a private developer for $18,000, or $1,000 each. About half are along Henneman Avenue, on the block east of the Hoen building. The other half are on Prentiss Place, one block southeast of Hoen. The developer, the Housing Development and Neighborhood Preservation Corp., pledged to spend $3.2 million rehabbing the properties, or about $176,000 apiece.
Much of the area’s rowhouse restoration has come from agreements with the housing department like this one. But Braverman noted that some properties are being bought and sold on the private market. One at the corner of Prentiss Place and North Patterson Park Avenue closed recently for $149,000. An additional seven on Prentiss Place also sold recently on the private market, he said.
“Who would buy one of these houses five years ago, six years ago?” Braverman said. “Now, there are private-market transactions. This is an entirely new market. Hoen has become an extraordinary lever.”
Stephen J.K. Walters, an economics professor at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business, said the city and state investment coupled with special deals for certain projects do not change the problems East Baltimore faces that keep private investment and homeowners away.
Real revival might be more likely, he said, if the city lowered its property tax rate, which is about twice as high as that in surrounding counties.
“Let’s work on a program to deliver a competitive tax rate to everyone and watch what happens,” Walters said.
While touring Prentiss Place recently, Braverman and Mayor Catherine Pugh ran into longtime resident Michael Vinson leaving for work. They told Vinson they area would turn around soon.
Vinson has lived in one of the street’s narrow rowhouses for 30 years, remaining even as he lost a little hope with each passing year, as neighbors moved away or died and the once lovingly swept marble stoops turned wobbly and stained with grime.
“When I moved here, every house on this block was occupied,” Vinson said. “I ain’t planning on going nowhere. I would love to see them come through and fix these houses back up.