Behind the security fence, Gerson Polun walks the grounds, moving from an area of waist-high weeds back to the barren center of the property and then toward its rear, where a rusting, green tin overhang sits waiting for its ultimate demise.
A gnarled Maryland license plate - with its '89 sticker still able to reflect the noon sun - lies in the dirt. It's the same dirt, just off the Canton waterfront, where a few years ago tractor-trailers off Interstate 95 used to park, and where a barrel factory stood for a generation before that.
"You should have seen this place before I really cleaned it up," Polun said. "This is what I like to do. Making money is just a scorecard. This is fun."
Neil Tabor of Ashley Custom Homes unfurls architectural plans, and Polun begins pointing toward East Avenue and then to the alley that connects with Bouldin Street. This marks the entrance to where they hope a year from now young dot-com couples will be driving into Canton Gables, a 27-unit garage townhouse complex that will have its official groundbreaking Thursday.
The groundbreaking will also carry a special significance, as Baltimore officials hope it is the start of an invasion of suburban builders who will construct market-rate housing for middle-income buyers. The 16-foot-wide brick units, one of the largest townhouse projects since the Canton Square townhouses of the late 1980s, are expected to start at $230,000. A sales center is planned for September, and the first move-ins by early winter.
"Gerson Polun was the catalyst for the project," said Janice Strauss, who, along with Tabor, Alan Ackerman and Jay Weiss are principals of Ashley, a Pikesville-based builder.
A "recovering architect" by trade, a developer by design, Polun is one who seemingly can stream together 101 ideas about how to turn nothing into something.
For 30 years, Polun has worked in commercial and residential renovation, and at one time was poised to purchase the old Procter & Gamble plant in Locust Point before his financing collapsed, allowing Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse to take over the project and create Tide Point.
Last year, he contracted to purchase the site in the 1200 block of S. Bouldin St. from Joanna Schaefer, wife of former Councilman John A. Schaefer of Bel Air, who had owned the lot for the past 30 years.
Polun was able to get the 1-acre lot rezoned, and his inclination was to build a four-story, 63-unit apartment complex. But that proposal didn't go over well with neighbors and community groups, who feared that parking would be an issue. When Polun came back with the idea of 27 garage townhouses, his plan was embraced. But Polun's strength was developing and designing, not building homes.
"For the last five or 10 years, we've talked about doing something together," said Ackerman, who acts as Ashley's in-house architect. "If we could get the right project, we would be definitely interested."
Polun convinced Ashley that the time was right to make a move on the city. "The mayor and the city government would be very supportive of this," he told the group, known for their cedar contemporary homes in the surrounding counties. It didn't take long for them to agree, and a joint venture was born.
Said Strauss, "It's something new, and any time something is new it is challenging. Canton is such an exciting area. If you go down there on any block, you'll see scaffolding. People are renovating left and right. That is where all the young people want to live."
The development will have a horseshoe design, with one row fronting East Avenue, another Bouldin Street and the third Toone Street. The East and Bouldin rows will have rear-entry garages that face a courtyard, while the remaining residences will have garage entry from Toone Street.
On the exterior, the homes have been designed to blend with the historic Canton surroundings, but inside, urban meets suburban.
"You can see our suburban influence," Tabor said of the 1,500-square-foot units. "Large windows. Two-and-a-half baths. We are so used to it that it was natural for us to design that in."
There is a country kitchen that has enough room for an optional cooking island and a gas fireplace. There's wall-to-wall carpeting instead of hardwood floors. On the entrance level, an optional third bedroom or office can be built, but the urban flavor returns with a wisely designed interior entryway to an optional rooftop deck that will command unobstructed views of the harbor.
"Years ago, we were known as a contemporary builder," said Strauss. "I built cedar and stone contemporaries, because that is what the people told me to build. You want a brick Georgian Colonial, I can do that just as well ... just as well as we can build in the city or we can build in the county."
But the width of the home, as well as the garage factor, is what Ashley is counting on in marketing the home.
"There are some beautiful rehab units out there. I won't tell you that there are not," Strauss said. "They have some charm because they have the brick [interior] walls, but they are 12 feet wide. Maybe if you are lucky, you will get 13 or 14 feet wide. It is really minuscule ... but they are still selling for $180,000."
Maury Bass of Homebuilders Realty Services LLC, a marketing firm, conducted a focus group in June on Ashley's behalf to gauge the marketplace. Would there be any misgivings about crime or schools, two of the city's toughest problems?
"They mentioned safety. They mentioned parking. Not one of them said one thing about what schools are going to be served by Canton Gables," Bass said, noting that the pool from which the focus group was drawn ranged from 25 to 34 years old.
"Our product caters to a young family. It does not cater to the family with three children," Strauss said.
"You get married, have a baby, you certainly can stay very comfortably in this house. If you are going to have three elementary [school]-aged children in this house, probably not."
Ashley officials know other suburban builders will be keeping a close eye on the project.
"It is an exciting feeling, because Baltimore is still part of a renaissance in developing the harbor ... and we still are part of it by getting involved," said Ackerman, who added that Ashley is looking at other downtown sites.
"I myself don't care what [competitors] say. The city is here to stay, with the harbor ... I think we are here to stay with it."