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Fire won't affect redevelopment, neighbors say

Marquise White, who lives in the 1700 block of E. Preston Street, had to evacuate his home for a time Sunday as fire ravaged homes around him.
Marquise White, who lives in the 1700 block of E. Preston Street, had to evacuate his home for a time Sunday as fire ravaged homes around him. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Burned-out rowhouses on East Preston Street, charred by a wind-swept fire Sunday, were outfitted Monday with new plywood coverings over downstairs windows and doors.

Normally, such boards are evidence of a neighborhood in decline in Baltimore. But neighbors are sure these boards aren't permanent, even if they represent a setback.

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Across the street from where the fire damaged houses under renovation, residents have moved into buildings already completed — with stainless-steel appliances, sleek hardwood floors and modern chrome house numbers. Wooden blinds now hang in the windows of the redone homes.

TRF Development Properties had been renovating the six vacant rowhouses in the 1700 block of E. Preston St. that burned during Sunday's fire, which ignited from embers blowing from a three-alarm warehouse fire.

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Hours before the Sunday blaze, the development company hosted an open house for renters, said Sven Schumann, 47, a site manager. The roofs of some of the homes, which had already been fitted with HVAC, electricity and plumbing, had been punctured so firefighters could put out the blaze, and most of them had heavy fire damage.

Schumann didn't know how much the fire would cost the company, but he said the homes were insured. The damage would cause construction delays, he added, but wouldn't thwart their efforts.

"We'll start all over again," he said.

Residents on the street said the fire could have happened anywhere and will not slow the area's progress.

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"This area is up and coming. Years ago, it was like a graveyard," said 24-year-old student Lakia Brown, who grew up in East Baltimore. As the first resident to live in the newly remodeled homes, she said, she's not deterred by living across from vacant homes.

"The plans didn't just happen. We are just living to see" the area's potential, she said.

Brown and neighbor Marquise White see the neighborhood as benefiting from neighboring Johns Hopkins Hospital. Both Brown and White say the houses are a great value — as nice and as large but about half the cost to rent as houses in areas farther south on Broadway, in Fells Point.

White said he considered buying but wanted to rent first. After a month in, he said he's thinking he will buy his next home in the neighborhood. White, who sells insurance, said he studied architecture and real estate development in college, and would like to follow a career path that aids similar neighborhoods.

"This is what I want to do. I have seen the potential," he said.

City Councilman Carl Stokes said the area has seen a "resurgence of homeownership." All around Broadway, homes are being redeveloped.

"I don't see any problem with moving forward," he said. One fire "is not going to slow down all of the housing that is being done."

Years ago, the area had stable homeownership, but younger generations moved away, leaving empty homes, he said, until the past few years when homes started being redeveloped.

"It has changed greatly," Stokes said.

Fire officials say the blaze was caused by embers blown from a three-alarm blaze at a now partially collapsed warehouse at Aisquith Street and Curtain Avenue. The department called in crews from Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford counties as they responded to flames at four other locations.

The Rev. Jay Blake, pastor of Eastern United Methodist Church on North Avenue, said the last few members were leaving a dinner for the congregation's 139th anniversary about 5 p.m. when the fire blew from the burning building next door to their church.

Flames burned a hole through the roof and in the attic of the church, Blake said. Afterward, water from fire hoses continued to drip from the ceiling, but the building did not show any major damage.

Blake said he noticed burning embers falling on his Jeep from the fire next door, and the firefighters were already on the scene when someone noticed the church smoking.

"They didn't have to call 911," he said.

White said he was at home Sunday afternoon when he smelled smoke but didn't think much of it until a firefighter knocked on his door and asked him to move his car parked out front.

Outside, he said he saw a nearby Formstone-covered home engulfed in flames. Two houses on either side also were on fire.

White said he waited outside with his car, watching as firefighters tried to douse the flames. He went inside an hour later, he said, and then another firefighter knocked on his door, telling him to leave because the house next door had caught on fire.

He said he worried his home would be destroyed, but it was spared. "Very lucky for me," he said.

On Monday, plywood had been added to the first-floor windows of the vacant homes, but upstairs, dangling, charred rafters were visible. Homes across the street were also windowless, but as a result of ongoing renovations — not fire.

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