House by house, Oliver neighborhood revival taking shape

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Sean Closkey, president of TRF Development Partners, is heading up an effort to rebuild East Baltimore housing between Johns Hopkins hospital and Penn Station. He is in the 1700 block of Preston Street where his project has worked on turning around a once abandoned block. Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun.

At the corner of Gay Street and Broadway, you can watch the physical transformation of a neighborhood.

Construction crews are rebuilding the circa-1880s homes to the south of the landmark American Brewery.


Walking the corresponding blocks of East Biddle and Preston streets on a recent visit, I could see a renewed community emerging. It's a convincing sight.

Without much fanfare but with hard work, the Oliver and Broadway East neighborhoods are being reconstructed, piece by piece, rowhouse by rowhouse.


It's a deliberate effort, but six years in, the results are remarkable — especially if you know how degraded this neighborhood had become. At one time, nearly every third house in Oliver was vacant.

Named for Oliver Street, the community is south of North Avenue in East Baltimore, adjacent to Green Mount Cemetery. Amtrak and MARC railroad passengers travel through daily, but never see the neighborhood — they're in the tunnel beneath it.

A tragic event stands behind the current activity: In 2002, seven members of the Dawson family were killed by arson. Their East Preston Street home was torched by a drug dealer in retaliation for repeatedly calling police to report drug sales.

In the aftermath of the killings, local residents and churches, as well as the organization Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, called for action. The result was a $10 million agreement with the Reinvestment Fund, a community development organization.

A little more than a decade ago, Oliver had 623 abandoned houses. There are now 188 rebuilt units, mostly two- and three-story rowhouses.

There's a whole block of North Broadway that has been restored to splendid Victorian appearance.

"We tried to be as quiet as possible when buying up the houses," said Sean Closkey, president of TRF Development Partners, the nonprofit created from the Reinvestment Fund to handle the neighborhood's revival. "We just went out and did it."

Closkey said his strategy is to change market forces that led to a three-story Oliver rowhouse being worth just $17,000 and to financial institutions being reluctant to back conventional home improvement loans.


"This market is beginning to become warm after a long freeze," he said. "We sold a house on Broadway for $229,000. The market now allows about 18 houses a year to sell at that price."

Closkey and his group have taken steps beyond housing.

"We bought a liquor store, tore it down then burned the license," he said. "We knew that if we sold the license, another liquor store would return someplace else."

Of those now coming to the community to live, he said about one-third have connections to the Johns Hopkins medical campus. Another third had moved out of Baltimore — and are now returning.

The hope for Oliver actually extends through several East Baltimore neighborhoods to the north of Hopkins, generally along the Amtrak rail corridor. Closkey is looking to move on to the adjacent neighborhood, Johnston Square.

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He uses various financial tools, including federal historic tax credits. The result is that properties are being preserved, with reconstructed interiors.


"The way it's financed, every house is its own project," he said of the paperwork-heavy process his staff has used to find ways to bring structures back from dormancy.

And over the past six years, he has kept to an informal schedule. "We run a dozen houses under construction at all times," he said.

One of the goals for Oliver is economic diversity. Of the homes that have been renovated, two-thirds are rentals and the remaining third have been sold to homebuyers.

People are moving in; homes are selling for good prices. Yet as we walked along East Biddle Street, Closkey spoke of a result that is less tangible: optimism that also has taken time to rebuild.

"People now have the hope it's going to be better in Oliver," he said.