Residents fought razing and created model of renewal Washington Hill's REBIRTH


For reminders of how she has spent much of her 68 years, Betty Hyatt needs only to look out the front window of her first-floor co-op in the 1700 block of E. Baltimore St.

Out there are the streets of Washington Hill, where the daughter of Russian immigrants played during the Depression, where the single mother raised five children, where the former church worker dreamed up ways to occupy restless neighborhood teen-agers.

She has devoted the past two decades to rebuilding those streets, to shaping solid rows of meticulous, red brick homes, some with marble steps and wrought iron railings, with doorway trim and cornices painted blue and green. Soon, she'll see the final pieces in place.

Since residents fought the wholesale razing of 27 blighted blocks north of Fells Point, the neighborhood has risen from a prime example of urban decay and neglect to a model of innovative renewal projects fueled by city-community partnerships and federal grants. By the mid-1980s, housing planners from Israel, Turkey, China and France were traipsing through co-ops on Fairmount Avenue, shopsteads on East Baltimore Street and dollar homesteads on Durham Street for **TC peek at redevelopment in the inner city. Ms. Hyatt, executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill since 1972, usually led the way.

Redevelopment stalled about seven years ago when federal money slowed to a trickle and other parts of the city were deemed needier. But today, workers are building affordable housing on the neighborhood's last major parcel. Planning resumed a year and half ago, federal financing came last fall and the first new homes should be finished next week.

The $4.5 million Washington Square includes 37 townhouses and 22 condominiums on four parcels of East Baltimore, Spring, Eden and Fairmount streets. Already, buyers have signed contracts to buy six of 10 new townhouses on East Baltimore, with three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, walk-in closets and gas heat. Townhouses -- with market values from $72,000 to $91,000 -- will sell for $51,254 to $69,452 because of federal and city subsidies. One- to three-bedroom condominiums -- valued from $48,679 to $86,218 -- will sell for $34,674 to $63,718.

In a neighborhood close to public housing projects fighting their own battles with poverty, drugs and crime, Washington Square "will go a long way toward stabilizing the entire community," Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson said when the project broke ground last fall.

Longtime residents agree that Washington Square signals progress for Washington Hill, where some residents talk of auto break-ins, burglaries and fears of walking toward the Inner Harbor at night but still say benefits of city life outweigh the dangers.

Joan Burns, a state lobbyist for the Department of Human Resources who grew up in New York City, moved to Washington Hill from "small town" Annapolis 14 years ago. Her children were grown and she missed the city.

For a spacious, three-bedroom co-op on Fairmount Avenue with high ceilings, tall windows and a bedroom view of the Inner Harbor, Ms. Burns pays $494 a month. She walks to work and shopping in Fells Point and goes to nearby theater, movies and restaurants. Owning a share in a co-op -- in which residents hold stock in a company that owns and manages the complex -- allows her to build equity and get tax breaks.

"This is a communal type of place," she said. "We know each other. I don't think it will ever be a quaint Annapolis, but I don't want it to be too yuppie either."

Developer Betty Jean Murphy expects Washington Square to attract city people like Ms. Burns, professionals who work downtown and families who want an affordable home of their own. She and developer Elinor Bacon formed the Bacon-Murphy Partnership to manage the project, with architects Schamu, Machowski, Doo and Associates, general contractor Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse and sales agents Prudential Preferred Properties.

Ms. Murphy and Ms. Bacon, who have developed rental and for-sale properties mainly in the city liked Washington Hill's reputation for racial, cultural and economic diversity and mix of housing, businesses and institutions such as Church Home and Hospital and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

"I can't believe everyone wants to live a sterile, homogenous neighborhood," said Ms. Murphy. "In order to be good at this, you have to gamble on the future. I believe people will want to live in the city."

Sense of community

In the early part of the century, Washington Hill was the choice of Jewish, Italian and German immigrants. Ms. Hyatt grew up in a Fayette Street rowhouse crammed with relatives: her father, who ran the toy department at Hochschild Kohn department store, mother, sister, cousins, grandparents, two uncles and an aunt.

In the 1940s, many of the Jewish residents fled to the suburbs. Landlords in that pre-housing code era haphazardly squeezed up to 10 apartments into one building to accommodate wartime workers and their families streaming into the city. Ms. Hyatt left Baltimore to get married in 1944, then returned in 1955, a divorced mother with five children. She found housing and public assistance back in her old neighborhood, where she lived in Perkins Homes on Pratt and Caroline Streets until 1963.

"It was not an unpleasant place to live," she said, recalling how social workers helped families with problems disciplining children. The experience also helped form her philosophy about maintaining strong neighborhoods.

"If you live on public property and get public assistance, then you owe something back to that community," she says. "You owe responsibility to adhere to community standards."

For her part, that meant helping neighborhood children. As a social worker in 1962 for Fells Point Methodist Parish, she directed youth activities, planning roller skating

parties and crafts activities after school and during the summer. She learned how to help residents through a confusing public system.

By the early 1970s, Washington Hill's housing -- some of the oldest in the city -- had become worn out from years of overuse and neglect. City housing officials began meeting with property and business owners and absentee landlords. In keeping with the time's urban renewal thinking, they planned to demolish blocks of rotting buildings stretching from Central Avenue east to Washington Street, then rebuild, erasing all traces of the neighborhood.

Fight for survival

"They didn't live there. They were happy to have the city buy [the buildings] and tear them down," Ms. Hyatt said. "That's when we fought. You could never replace what is there with new housing. You can't get the detail and kind of quality. You can't afford it."

By 1971, about 60 residents, preservationists and church leaders who had organized Citizens for Washington Hill won a drive to elect their own members to the Project Area Committee required for federal urban renewal projects.

The city assigned Paul Dombrowski, a young urban renewal planner in the Housing and Community Development office, to work with residents. He found a lack of parks, a predominance of renters and a slew of vacant, deteriorating buildings. He was impressed, though, by residents' determination to save those buildings.

Together, they scrutinized the neighborhood, studying each block and each building. Four months later, they had a plan to save facades of most properties on North Broadway, East Baltimore, Fairmount Avenue, Caroline and Fayette streets and encourage moderate-income homeownership. The community endorsed the plan in January 1972. The City Council adopted it later that year, and Washington Hill became a federal Urban Renewal Area. Members of Citizens for Washington Hill were to help develop plans and architectural guidelines and act as watchdogs.

Year by year, rehabilitation swept the neighborhood, with the city acquiring properties and bidding federally funded restoration work to contractors. Ms. Hyatt has overseen much of becoming known as "the Mayor of Washington Hill." More than anything else, residents and city officials say, such consistency and a community board interested more in progress than power plays kept the plan on track.

Between 1973 and 1975, the city acquired the 1700 and 1800 blocks of East Baltimore, the first and 100 blocks of Broadway and the 1700 block of Fairmount for Washington Hill Mutual Homes, a co-operative of 218 rehabilitated apartments and single-family homes. Around the same time, a nonprofit corporation built Chapel, a complex of 175 one- to four-bedroom rental apartments between Baltimore and Orleans and Wolfe and Washington streets.

Washington Hill boasted some of Baltimore's first dollar houses, with buyers in the mid-1970s purchasing virtual shells of 13 homes on Durham Street for $1 each and agreeing to renovate and live in them. Others moved into small homesteads on Bond Street and Fairmount Avenue around 1978, renovating some and rebuilding others that crumbled.

Fifteen years ago, stained glass craftsman Jeff Powley was living in Chevy Chase in Montgomery County, in need of a new apartment and a studio, when he heard about the rebirth of the Baltimore neighborhood. "Shopsteads" in the 1600 block of East Baltimore Street, rowhouses with fire or termite damage, were on sale for $100 to craftsmen and women who agreed to fix them up, live there and run studios. Mr. Powley bought one and put $45,000 into renovations.

His home has been burglarized several times, but Mr. Powley hasn't lost faith in Washington Hill. Most weekends he can be found with other residents picking up litter or, during warm months, planting flowers.

"It's been ideal," Mr. Powley said. "It's easy to meet people. If you want to get involved you really can."

While renovating shopsteads, residents and city officials discovered artists needed affordable housing they could adapt for large, open studios. In the early to mid-1980s, the city developed Artist Housing, making 32 single-floor apartments of row homes in the 1400 block of Baltimore Street. Now fully occupied and managed by a co-op, the buildings stand out with door and window trim painted bright blues, pinks and turquoise.

In 1980, the city was awarded $987,500 through the federal Urban Development Action Grant Program for 99 middle-income townhouses. Fairmount on the Park was finished around 1984.

A chance to develop

Planning for Washington Square dragged on seven years, while the westernmost edge of the community degenerated into blocks of boarded-up, graffiti-covered buildings and abandoned, gutted houses. Then last fall, the department of Housing and Urban Development approved a $1 million Urban Development Action Grant left over from Fells Point.

It has given the community group its first shot at developing, with members of Citizens for Washington Hill and the Housing Assistance Corp. forming Washington Hill Development Corp.

The corporation chose Ms. Bacon and Ms. Murphy as consultants from among 15 bidders.

Families with annual incomes of $13,000 to $42,750 can qualify for low-interest loans from the state Community Development Administration for condos, while those with incomes of $16,500 to $42,750 can qualify for CDA loans for townhouses.

On a cold, sunny day, Ms. Hyatt and Rita Hubbard, president of Citizens for Washington Hill, got their first glimpse of the new brick townhouses occupying a former vacant lot across from Artist Housing, as workers cleaned up brick, built new walls and painted door trim.

Ms. Hyatt allowed herself a brief moment of satisfaction before refocusing on the work ahead: getting individual owners of rundown properties near Washington Square to sell or renovate, helping city officials redevelop industrial Central Avenue along the neighborhood's western edge.

"There's still work that needs to be done," she says. "We're not finished yet."

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