Venus Easton has a front-row seat at the Catonsville Fourth of July parade every year. Simon and Nathalie King have a spectacular view of the Annapolis City Dock. And John Beck lives next to one of his favorite restaurants in Ellicott City.
All of them live in apartments that not only are in the center of town, but above it -- above stores, boutiques and businesses.
Once it was common to find shopkeepers and their families living above their businesses. Today, the buildings are usually owned by landlords who live elsewhere, but tenants continue to keep alive the tradition of above-store living.
Beck has lived in upstairs apartments in downtown Ellicott City for more than 24 years. "I've never had any reason to move," the 50-year-old librarian says.
For the past 10 years, his home has been a three-room apartment on the fourth floor of a building in the 8000 block of Main St. -- above what currently is a tattoo parlor.
His paneled living room and dining room walls are covered with posters and photographs. The hardwood floors are decorated with zebra-striped rugs. And a row of windows looks out on a hill carved by a neighbor's vegetable garden.
Up a few steps, Beck enjoys his own brick patio that nestles into the back of a rocky crag.
He considers the $550 monthly rent a fair price and doesn't even mind the climb up the narrow stone stairs to his apartment.
Next door is the Cocoa Lane Restaurant, which he visits frequently.
"I love the small-town atmosphere and having access to the shops and restaurants," he says. "I have no desire to live in a suburb somewhere."
Neither does Easton. She has lived in the same two-bedroom apartment on Frederick Road for 37 years. Beneath her apartment are a shoe repair shop and a dry cleaners. "It's close to everything," Easton says.
Simon King says downtown Annapolis reminds him of villages in his native England. He and his wife live in a spacious two-bedroom apartment above the Sunglass Hut and a clothing boutique on Market Space. Both bedrooms have a spectacular view of Annapolis Harbor, and through his kitchen window peeks the State House dome.
"Living downtown is really fun," says King, a financial market development manager for a video teleconferencing service. "Especially in the morning. It's really quiet. It's neat." Typically, those who live above stores are single or young married couples without children, although Bob Fisher, a real estate agent with Long & Foster in Fells Point, says he has noticed recently a bit of history repeating itself. "A buyer will put a small business in a store and then live upstairs," he says.
Most who live above stores, however, are renting from someone else. Tenants may pay from $300 a month for a one-bedroom in Westminster to nearly $1,200 a month for a three-bedroom apartment in Fells Point. And the demand for such apartments varies widely as well.
Jesse Krauch, property manager at Historic Ellicott Properties, which owns 11 apartments in downtown Ellicott City, says he never has to advertise to find tenants. A simple sign in the window of a building will attract people willing to pay $525 to $800 a month to live among the town's antique stores and boutiques -- and he has a waiting list.
"They enjoy the antique environment," he says. "I have some [tenants] who have been here since Moses played Ping-Pong."
But in Westminster, David Fairbank can hardly find tenants to live in his apartments on Main Street. "If you get someone who stays six months, you're lucky," Fairbank says.
He owns 14 one-bedroom apartments in a former cigar factory, and five are empty. And Fairbank complains that too much of his time is spent going to court to get nonpaying tenants evicted.
While landlords in Annapolis or Ellicott City can demand top dollar for the prestige of living downtown, rents for the approximately 175 apartments in downtown Westminster are somewhat less than the $450 for a typical garden apartment in the area, says Johnny Boose, a real estate agent with J. F. Erb Inc.
Throughout the region, the condition of the above-store apartments varies as well. Some resemble modern garden apartments with central air conditioning and their own washers and dryers. Others haven't been remodeled in 50 years.
And some apartments that were the homes of shopkeepers no longer are rented because renovations would be too expensive.
Tom Booth, who owns eight buildings on Frederick Road in Catonsville, says that if the apartments already exist, then it's logical to rent them out. Apartments in Catonsville can bring $350 to $500 a month. But Booth says that's not enough to make it worthwhile to convert storage rooms or other space into XTC dwelling units.
Mike Riordan, owner of Riordan's Saloon, says the income from two upstairs apartments was critical to his being able to afford to expand the restaurant into adjoining retail space below them.
Yet, even in Annapolis, many landlords have been unable to justify the cost of renovating the upstairs of commercial buildings. City officials have been trying for years to encourage more above-store apartments on Main Street, but many second and third floors remain vacant.
"The obstacle is the upstairs of the building are not safe," says Susan Zellers, Annapolis' economic development director. She would like to see landlords make the investments to make the upstairs livable. "We encourage it. Any way we can get more people to live close to where they work is good."
Residents acknowledge that there are trade-offs to the living arrangement. Finding a parking space is often difficult. "You collect a lot of parking tickets," says Glenn Schiller, a commercial real estate agent who lives in Ellicott City.
Noise can be another problem, especially when the bars close at night, Beck says.
"They [noisy patrons] don't have any realization that anyone is living here, or they just don't care."
Some tenants quickly lose interest in downtown living after slogging blocks in the rain and snow to their cars. But Beck and others say those inconveniences are worth putting up with in exchange for living downtown.
"I love it," says Nathalie King, a flight attendant. "Being downtown is really neat. You don't have to drive anywhere."
The Kings enjoy spending their days off together strolling Main Street and looking in at the shops in Annapolis.
Schiller enjoys being able to walk to his favorite restaurants in Ellicott City. "I can walk out my door and have a Diet Coke and vodka."
"It's either here or Paris," Beck says of Ellicott City.
Pub Date: 12/01/96