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A jewel glows within the city Otterbein beckons to those searching for urban good life; 12 new houses; Buyers can choose among homes rising from long-vacant lot


It once seemed an unlikely candidate for urban renewal. But after more than two decades, Otterbein is seeing the final pieces of its rebirth put into place: new houses with decidedly suburban amenities amid blocks of restored mid-19th-century rowhouses.

In the downtown neighborhood west and southwest of the Inner Harbor, 12 new homes will fill the last vacant lot, on West Hill Street, between Sharp Street and grounds next to Interstate 395. Six homes are complete, with all but one sold. Six more are under construction.

Builder Hencken and Gaines Inc. designed the homes to blend with the neighboring narrow brick two- and three-story houses, many of which have brick front steps and brightly painted doors.

But the builder hopes to lure urban dwellers with amenities that have become standard fare in new, suburban townhouses: finished basements, powder rooms, walk-in closets, gas heat and fireplaces and reserved parking.

Such features and a prime spot between the harbor and 'D Camden Yards prompted Bob Rubenkonig, associate director of corporate merchandising for the Rouse Co., to buy the first house just over a year ago.

"It's wonderful to have a residential pocket there in the middle of the city," said Rubenkonig, 38, who moved from a nearby condominium. "The neighborhood, despite what you hear about urban problems and crime, is a wonderful place to live. The neighbors are friendly, and it's a great place to walk the dog and see kids out."

Rubenkonig -- "a single guy with lots of nieces and nephews who think I have the coolest house" -- customized with crown moldings, an expanded kitchen island and a fish pond and brick patio out back. "I have the best view of the ballpark from my bedroom window; I can hear the crack of the bats," he said,

adding that he has found his home insulated from highway noise.

The latest homes under construction include a row of three, a duplex and a detached house, all priced at $148,500.

"Where else in the city can you get a detached house next to a swim club for under $150,000?" said Cynthia B. Conklin, a real estate agent with O'Conor, Piper & Flynn, referring to the Otterbein Swim Club on Sharp Street bordering the Otterbein Commons site. Conklin and her husband, Robert L. Merbler Jr., who are selling the homes, also live in the neighborhood.

The past two decades have brought in homesteaders who rehabilitated shells of old houses they bought for $1, residents committed to preserving historic architecture, professionals seeking a home within walking distance of work, shopping and )) restaurants.

"Everyone who lives down here lives here because they're devoted to the city," said Barbara Epke, a Sinai Hospital vice president who moved to Baltimore from Pittsburgh. A year ago, Epke bought a rowhouse on West Lee Street, built on the site of an original house that had deteriorated.

"There is a real sense of the history of Baltimore around you all the time, and certainly some of the buildings that existed are worth preserving," she said. "I like the fact that more homes are being built. It extends the gentrification of the neighborhood. I don't think you compromise the renovation of the neighborhood to put something in where nothing existed."

But residents monitored the development to ensure that new houses would match existing ones, both in appearance and price. (Prices range from $80,000 for a condominium to $300,000 for a large house.) The builder worked closely with the Otterbein Community Association, said the association's president, Dr. Mary Gorman, a physician who lives on Lee Street with her husband and three children.

Over the years, residents have renovated most of the area's original homes. New homes, built to blend with the old, sprouted in vacant lots and as part of small developments.

In the past 15 years, builders have developed new townhouses such as Harborwalk along Hanover, Charles, Barre and Lee streets and Otterbein Court on Pubped Way and Sharp and Hill streets.

One of downtown's largest and newest townhouse projects, Ryland Homes' 42-house Montgomery Square at South Charles and Montgomery streets in neighboring Federal Hill, sold out within two years. In the suburban builder's first city venture, Ryland appealed to today's buyers by offering rear-entry garages, optional dens and decks. The homes were priced around $170,000.

Hencken and Gaines, through the Congress Hall Square Limited Partnership, is building Otterbein Commons as an extension of 11 townhouses the general contractor built around the corner on Sharp Street 10 years ago, said Victor Hencken, president. "There is nothing like it down there," Hencken said. "We feel the back six will be stronger sellers than the front six because of the price."

The first six all-brick houses, completed this year, ranged in price from $180,000 to $230,000 and offered views of the ballpark and the city skyline. The two- or three-bedroom homes have basements, one- or two-car garages, gas fireplaces, hardwood floors, eat-in kitchens, raised ceilings, whirlpool tubs and small rear yards and some customized features. The one unsold house is listed at $234,000.

The second six homes, under construction behind the first six, will look similar on the exterior. Several differences will account for the lower price, including depths of 30 feet rather than 36 feet, two bedrooms and parking spaces instead of garages.

These are nearer the interstate, but the builder was surprised that the home on the end of the original group, which was closest to I-395, sold first.

A wall, landscaping and the parking spaces will help buffer the houses from the highway, Hencken said.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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