Community nurtures eccentrics, extroverts; Residents call area filled with pageantry, parties not for wimps

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Talk about the past and the future melding together -- Fells Point is a place where the modern world and its history are would-be partners looking to two-step to an unfamiliar song.

Probably in no other Baltimore neighborhood are the forces of historic preservation and unadulterated commerce stronger than in Fells Point. The result is a rather odd yin-and-yang phenomenon.

There are plans for a coffee museum that would reclaim a sad structural wreckage on the corner of Thames and Bond streets that dates back to Revolutionary times. Three buildings down the same street, there's talk of a tattoo museum to tap into the body-art trend.

One day, Fells Point is a quiet village where locals hold crab feasts and kids have water fights in alleys.

Another day, Fells Point handles 350,000 people at its annual festival or overflowing crowds on such carnival-like nights as Halloween.

On weekends, Fells Point is a destination for college kids and for bachelor and bachelorette parties. By Monday night, the bars are returned to the locals, who hunker down in quiet conversation as if they live in a New England fishing village.

"There are other people than just your neighbors who you'll run into," said Skip Pearre, 43, who for 13 years has lived in a condominium that overlooks Broadway Square. "Down here it's almost like a large social gathering."

Because the homes are relatively small and a mixed jumble along streets, people tend to do a lot of street socializing, sitting in the square or running into neighbors at the much-treasured Broadway Market.

"I like the idea that within a couple of blocks I can go sit down on the docks of Fells Point and enjoy the solitude or I could turn right and be in the pulse of Fells Point," Mark Dennehy said.

Fourteen months ago Dennehy, who gave up his job doing cabinetwork for Marriott Hotels, bought a dilapidated rowhouse on Ann Street where he and his girlfriend, Lauren Pyle, live above The Elzeard Pottery gallery.

The fact that the neighborhood is a tourist destination by day and a party spot at night makes Fells Point living rather extroverted.

"It's not a neighborhood you can ignore, and it's a very much part of your life," said Bob Cooke, who has lived on Ann Street for three years. Cooke said just the simple act of fetching the paper off the front step can lead to conversation if a friend happens to be passing by.

Settled in 1763 as a Colonial port, Fells Point was a more vibrant shipping destination than its neighbor Baltimore Town to the west, until the two were annexed in 1773. For more than 150 years, Fells Point continued to distinguish itself as a shipbuilding, waterside community. In the early 1800s privateers made a living plundering boats.

By the mid-20th century the working waterfront began its slow decline, leaving behind a collection of characters. With cheap housing came a wave of artists, who offered more spice to an already eccentric neighborhood.

Then, in the 1960s, came the infamous road project to run a highway through Fells Point and Federal Hill, which served as a rallying cry for community activism that eventually saved the area. For the three decades since, Fells Point has been predicted to turn into the next Georgetown.

William Cassidy, sales manager for the Fells Point office of Long and Foster Real Estate Inc., has been hearing the Georgetown forecast for 25 years.

"For all the razzmatazz that things are booming in Fells Point, things haven't changed that much," he said. Cassidy said eccentricity is still the predominant neighborhood force and boasts that Fells has more characters than any neighborhood in Baltimore.

But even Cassidy, who lives in the neighborhood where he works, has seen a new pitch to the constant bustle on the waterfront. He described Fells Point as a seller's market -- more so than ever before -- and some Realtors talk about waiting lists for people looking to buy a house in the neighborhood.

Fells Point is no longer the place for the urban pioneer looking to buy a fixer-upper. Many of the would-be buyers aren't just young people who normally gravitate toward action-packed enclaves.

Older people also are returning to the city. Cassidy said the small homes in Fells Point make it easy on people looking to downsize from larger homes since their kids have grown up.

As a result, several projects have cropped up: Lancaster Square on the corner of Wolfe and Lancaster, a $6 million project due to open at the end of the year, will convert an 18th-century warehouse into 11 residential rentals and 35,000 square feet of commercial space. Lancaster Place will offer five three-story units starting at $359,000 with built-in parking garages and roof-top decks. Aliceanna Point, on the corner of Fleet and Wolfe, will convert a warehouse and former recording studio into five townhouses that will range in price from $239,000 to $275,000.

Other than the occasional infusion of new condominium developments along the waterfront, Fells Point had been primarily the happy hunting ground for those who love old homes.

But there are many homebuyers won't consider old homes, with their idiosyncrasies, said Rich Beil, who with his partner Steve Hessler of B & H Development LLC is building four homes on Aliceanna and Bond streets and is completing a townhouse grouping -- Canton Crossroads -- on Essex Street.

"It's hard to make a 150-year-old house look like new," he said. "When you buy a 100-year-old house, there's going to be imperfections."

Although building new homes with parking garages and decks is standard in the county, Beil said he gets more satisfaction from building in the city, where the market demands combining traditional rowhouse brick-and-stoop architecture with modern amenities, such as roof-top decks, built-in garages and more space than older homes on the market.

Area Realtors said Fells Point has been practically redefined by the Canton housing boom and the potential economic infusion to the west with the new hotels built for Marriott.

"I think Fells Point is going in such an upward scale -- the cobblestone streets, the historic homes, the return of the eateries -- I do think it will be the next new Georgetown," said Frank Lanham, a Realtor for O'Conor, Piper and Flynn ERA, who represents the above-mentioned projects.

Larry Silverstein, a developer involved in both Lancaster projects, said Fells Point offers an urban village feel, a trend that's much sought after by businesses and residents.

"My generation in their 20s and 30s grew up in the suburbs and don't want to live in a pre-fab community," he said. "You want to live in the neighborhood where you can walk to a restaurant and walk to the stores, where you don't have to rely on your car constantly."

For Pearre, one of the most positive neighborhood signs that he's seen in years are the chalk drawings on the sidewalks, signs that kids are staying in the neighborhood. Usually, he said, parents head for the suburbs as soon as their kids are ready to go to school.

Katie Davis, who has two children, vows to stay, and as president of the Fells Point Homeowners Association, she's trying to make sure the neighborhood retains its charm.

Whether she's scolding someone for driving the wrong way on a one-way street or taking a stand against a proposal to extend live music licenses until 4 a.m., Davis has found that living in Fells Point isn't for the passive. It's a place where residents and businesses live in tight quarters. It's a place that is teeming with police presence one day and shockingly devoid of law and order the next.

Even as she describes an almost village-like atmosphere where she can run a tab at the local market, she says Fells Point isn't for everyone, "because it's not prissy."

For Pearre, Fells Point is like a pageant. One week it's the festival; the next weekend, historic schooners come to town for a race.

"It's just one of those weekends that makes you go out of your mind [in disbelief] -- this is a vacation for someone and I happen to live here," Pearre said.

Fells Point

Commuting time to downtown Baltimore: 5 minutes

Shopping: Broadway Market; Harborplace; Safeway in Canton.

Public schools: Thomas G. Hayes Elementary; Dunbar Middle School; Southern High School.

ZIP code: 21231

Homes on market: 67

Average listing price: $99,748*

Average sales price: $93,613*

Average days on market: 208*

Sales price as percentage of listing price: 93.85%*

* Based on 99 sales in the past 12 months as recorded by the Metropolitan Regional Information System.

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