Views of new residents result in rooftop decks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A map that accompanied a profile of the South Baltimore neighborhood in last Sunday's Real Estate section included a location for the Edward Hill Elementary School. The name of the school is the Federal Hill Elementary School. Also, the ZIP code for the area was incorrect. It is 21230.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Strolling the South Baltimore neighborhood he has called home for 70 years, Jack Williams stopped short at the sight of "yuppie" decks topping what used to be Formstone rowhouses on the street where he was born.

When he was growing up on Harvey Street in a neighborhood of firefighters, tugboat workers and railroad engineers, no one would have thought of hoisting lawn chairs up there. Back then, rooftops just a street behind Key Highway offered gritty views of Bethlehem Steel's shipyard rather than sailboats docked in the marina of a luxury condominium tower.

On a sunny afternoon, Mr. Williams stood by the blue Formstone rowhouse his family once owned, looking in disbelief at the next block. It had been transformed from a row of gray, nondescript homes with iron steps and flat roofs to a block of redbrick homes with angled front stoops, detailed cornices and rooftop decks.

"That's real refreshing to look up and see that after the years of the way they were," said Mr. Williams, chief engineer for the Chesapeake Paperboard Co., recalling how the rundown rentals never fit in on the well-kept street. The homes so embarrassed his sisters that they would slip through the alleys to meet friends.

"It's a big change. The girls in the old days would have loved to see that," Mr. Williams said.

A local developer is tearing out the interiors and remodeling 13 homes, one of the bigger projects in the gradual shifting of a largely working-class neighborhood supported by industry around the harbor. Today, much of that industry has shut down. The old shipyard across Key Highway from Harvey Street has given way to the HarborView marina, where the first of six planned condominium towers opened in September.

Over the years, investors have bought properties, fixed them up and sold them to professionals seeking quick access to jobs downtown or in Washington via Interstate 95. When they show rowhouses set close to the street among corner drugstores, pharmacies and churches, local real estate agents like to tout the proximity of historic Federal Hill and its neighborhood to the north.

But residents say the neighborhoods of the peninsula, under the watch of groups such as the South Baltimore Improvement Committee, the Riverside Action Group, Riverside Neighbors and Locust Point Civic Association, offer convenience to dozens of Federal Hill's shops, restaurants and the Cross Street Market plus a charm all their own.

"It's got great views of the water, great people, fine restaurants located right here, like Ransome's, Regi's, Captain Larry's," said Randy Collins, a 36-year-old attorney with Semmes, Bowen & Semmes who moved to the Riverside neighborhood from Washington three years ago and became president of Riverside Neighbors. "You've got the ballpark right downtown. People get out and meet one another. Families go back generations in South Baltimore, adding to the integrity and stability of the neighborhood."

His neighbors include a mix of teachers, architects, attorneys who work downtown and workers at Locust Point Marine Terminal. Children attend local parochial or public schools.

"This neighborhood is a real up-and-comer," said Stephen H. Strohecker, a broker with Century 21 who showed homes in the area for years and became distressed by the rundown end of Harvey Street. "There had been years and years of neglect, with tenants leaving layers and layers of residue. This block was so bad, it pulled down the whole neighborhood."

In April, Mr. Strohecker invested in the block, buying the homes for $455,000. He began redoing the interiors and hauling away trash, refinishing hardwood floors and installing new drywall, new bathrooms and all new appliances. He redesigned interiors, turning two small upstairs bedrooms into one master bedroom, bathroom and walk-in closet, putting a second bedroom and bathroom in refinished walk-out basements. His agreement allowed him to buy nine vacant units at first and the others as tenants moved out.

He has finished work on six homes, selling four for about $90,000 each and renting two. He has begun renovating four others. Original tenants still live in three homes and have until April to move.

Pamela Luckey, a 25-year-old pastry cook, moved to a remodeled house on Harvey Street last January. Mr. Strohecker hadn't bought his block of homes yet, but Ms. Luckey saw potential in the neighborhood and figured someone like him would come along eventually.

From the bedroom of her rowhouse, she looked over rooftops toward the boats in Fells Point, admitting that the city is the last place she intended to buy a house.

"I had a really bad opinion of Baltimore," said Ms. Luckey, who used to live in Mount Vernon, where someone tried to break into her apartment. She lived out of state for a while, returned to a job at Harbor Court Hotel and took a friend's suggestion to try South Baltimore.

Renting a house on Cross Street for a year, "I found this whole new part of the city I didn't know existed. I don't think people paid attention to this part before, other than to go to Fort McHenry."

By the time Ms. Luckey decided to buy a house, South Baltimore had won over the former suburbanite from Crofton. She had friends nearby; she could walk to work in the summer; and she could always find a familiar face in a local restaurant. Plus, she felt safe.

"I'm not constantly looking over my shoulder when I pull up to my house, and I don't think you get the same feeling everywhere else in the city," she said. "It's much more of a neighborhood. The neighbors are not just people who live next door. Everyone I know who lives down here doesn't want to live anywhere else."

Mr. Strohecker envisions his homes appealing to other single working people, as well as to couples buying a first home or buyers who want to rent the basement to a roommate. "I knew there was a niche in the market for young professionals living downtown, renting with roommates," he said, standing atop one of his new decks, with a view of the Inner Harbor and the landmark Domino Sugar sign. "My goal is to give someone in the $25,000 to $35,000 salary range an opportunity to live in the neighborhood."

Mr. Williams, for one, is glad to see the changes on Harvey Street. And change comes slowly to a neighborhood set in its ways.

Major proposals over the past few years have divided the community. Some residents complained that HarborView on Key Highway, planned as a 42-acre village of 1,600 condos and town houses, would block their view. And community groups and the developer of the 128,000-square-foot Southside Market Place negotiated for two years on traffic patterns and types of stores before the center opened in 1991.

Even the leadership of the Riverside Action Group, which supported the new shopping center and is lobbying for increased police patrols, hasn't changed in 12 years, with Mr. Williams heading it.

"South Baltimoreans as a rule do not like change," said Vincent Rallo, whose father opened Rallo's diner on Fort Avenue a half-century ago.

SOUTH BALTIMORE

Population: 17,716 (estimate based on 1990 Census)

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 5 minutes

Commuting time to Washington: 45 minutes

Public schools: Francis Scott Key Elementary, Thomas Johnson Elementary, Federal Hill Elementary, Francis Scott Key Middle and Southern High.

Shopping: Southside Market Place, Cross Street Market, business district bounded by Montgomery, Ostend, Hanover and Light streets.

Points of interest: Latrobe Park in Locust Point, Leone Riverside Park, Federal Hill Park and Fort McHenry; Baltimore Museum of Industry; port terminals in adjacent Locust Point.

Average price of single-family home *: $57,226.

ZIP code: 21201

* Average price for homes sold through the Central Maryland Multiple Listing Service for the past 12 months.

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