You walk the narrow cobblestone streets and wonder what would William Fell think.
At the point where Bond meets Thames, you see the chain-link fence curving around the corner up the street and then curving onto Caroline. There's machinery everywhere, clearing the area and laying the groundwork for a 750-car garage and a string of new residences.
Face the harbor, and rising from the ground to anchor the Bond Street Wharf is the chic new six-story international headquarters of Maryland's largest architectural firm, RTKL Associates, with its 200 employees.
Glance westward and there's the gritty open space left by the former Allied Signal chrome factory, destined to be reborn as Harbor Point, 27 acres of trendy commercial, office and restaurant space.
Blockbuster? Bagel shops? The Gap? Another wave of dot-com startups to continue the Digital Harbor dream? Who knows?
Peek over your shoulder, and still standing guard on Bond Street is the London Coffee House, a pre-Revolutionary War gathering spot where time has put wrinkles into the Colonial brick-and-mortar exterior. A few feet away is 1532 Thames St., which dates to the 19th century.
You can sense the ghost of William Fell standing there, surveying the land he knew in 1726. What would the English land speculator think of the site now?
Almost 250 years ago, Fell's son, Edward, laid out these streets. After his death, his wife, Ann Bond Fell, shrewdly sold parcels to people who knew a good investment when they saw it.
Funny how history has a way of repeating itself: William Fell, meet Ted Rouse. From one developer to another, the face of Baltimore's most historic waterfront is evolving again. From bawdy, brash, brawling Fells Point comes upscale sophistication that seeks to blend the fabric of the old with that of the new.
In March, Struever Rouse Homes, a division of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, will begin work on the Bond Street Townhouses. The five luxury residences are expected to become the most expensive homes in the area, with prices starting at $550,000. With extras such as an elevator that goes to a rooftop sunroom, most will end up costing closer to $650,000.
The townhouses are just a slice of what Rouse is doing as part of a $90 million project that includes the Bond Street Wharf, an adjoining plaza and Fells Landing, which will "wrap" and hide a 750-car garage with 24 European-style condominiums and first-floor retail space along Thames Street and 20 "two-over-two" townhouses on Caroline Street.
The condominiums will range in price from $158,000 to $350,000. The townhouses will begin at about $200,000 for a lower-level unit and $300,000 for an upper-level unit with rooftop deck. Construction on the two projects is expected to begin in the summer. H&S; Properties Development Corp. is a partner in the residential development.
"Baltimore's huge asset is this waterfront, which is unique among the waterfronts anywhere in the world in both being a working port, a recreation port, a retail shopping center," Rouse said. "I live in Federal Hill, but it doesn't have the same nautical feeling that Fells Point does. Seeing that row of townhouses that face the waterfront gives roots to the neighborhood as a waterfront neighborhood."
Changing the face of neighborhoods is nothing to new Rouse and his partner, Bill Struever. They've been doing it for a generation. From the American Can Co. in Canton to $300,000 townhouses at Whetstone Point in Locust Point, making something out of nothing and raising property values is what they do best.
"We've been Baltimore City's largest homebuilder by default for 25 years in that very few people are crazy enough to build where the market wasn't going in the city," Rouse said from his office in Tide Point, across the harbor the from emerging new Fells Point.
In Fells Point, upscale single-house and small-block rehabilitation projects are common, but now the area is at a point where major redevelopment is going to become more visible.
Because of its Colonial heritage, there's always been a notion that Fells Point could imitate the charm of Georgetown. Broadway and Thames has always been a long way from Wisconsin and M, but as the new development and nearby residential and commercial projects begin to pick up speed, could a transformation take place?
"We've been promised that Georgetown [look] for 25, 30 years," said Bill Cassidy, manager of the Fells Point office for Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. "And actually in the last year and half, visually and visibly, the neighborhood has changed more than it has in the previous 10 to 20 years. Just to see the crowd that eats in the Broadway Market at lunchtime is so much different than what it was 10 or 20 years ago."
Matthew F. Holbrook is development director of the Bond Street project for Struever Rouse Homes, and to him, the architecture displayed in the 19th and 18th centuries is what made Georgetown special "and that's what we are re-creating here."
"In Georgetown, there are two Georgetowns, the Georgetown along Wisconsin and M. And then there's the Georgetown back in the neighborhoods and the small streets with the big trees and streetlights. When people think of Georgetown, they really think of M and Wisconsin. The same thing with Fells Point. They think of Broadway and Thames.
"So I think this really starts to paint a picture similar to Georgetown. It has a different charm because of the water, [and] Georgetown doesn't have the industrial feel to it at all. It doesn't have that history. It was strictly a bedroom community for the city. I think in those ways it can be argued that Fells Point really has more charm than Georgetown does."
But will Fells Point's reputation as a modern-day college watering hole ease when this wave of upscale homeowners begin to arrive in greater numbers?
"It is always going to have an entertainment aspect as part of its appeal," said Joseph Cronyn, senior associate with the real estate consulting firm of Lipman, Frizzell & Mitchell. "It will probably change over time as the restaurants and bars adjust to different customer segments. But that's part of the reason why people move there. It may be a bit less rowdy, but it's not going to be any less fun."
The five luxury homes, one of which a deposit has been put down, will be built in the gap between a Formstone-covered rowhouse at 840 Bond St. and the London Coffee House. An unimproved lot between the coffee house and 1532 Thames also has a deposit on it, where another Rouse-built residence is going up.
In Fells Point, the typical rehabbed home ranges from 1,300 to 1,400 square feet.
"The average house in the historic district that you can move into and has some bells and whistles, redone kitchen or bathroom, are getting into the $200,000 range," said David Martz, an agent in Cassidy's office and a Fells Point resident himself.
The Bond Street Townhouses will be 20 feet wide and 40 feet long, with living space ranging from 2,600 square feet to 3,400 square feet if the buyer wants to add an in-law suite above a 20-by-23-foot, two-car detached garage.
Between the main house and the garage - which are connected by a breezeway - is a brick-paved courtyard. On the roof will be a sunroom, set back so that it will not be visible from Bond Street.
"You can talk about single-family homes in the county that are not that big," said Lou Chirgott, sales and marketing director for Struever Rouse Homes. "We think we have a unique product.
"We think we are going to be able to attract a young professional as well as an empty-nester who wants to go back to the city.
"Bond Street is a very quiet corridor. You are close to the restaurants. The heart of Fells Point. The product, in and of itself, separates itself from HarborView, the ones at Canton. ... Other builders don't provide functionality in their homes as much as we do."
The idea for the atrium comes from Rouse's experience living in Europe.
"The plans for Bond Street in part grew out of my experience of living in Spain for a year, where houses are often designed around an atrium and a courtyard," he said. "The concept nevertheless is addictive. Your outdoor space becomes a room, and there's no better room than outdoors, nature.
"We put the same idea here, and we think it is even going to be neater," he said, adding that from the rooftop, buyers will have an unobstructed view of the water through the Bond Street Plaza, an open space where residents and those working in the area can relax or take a stroll along the promenade.
Rouse and his design team worked closely with the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fell's Point to capture the architecture of the Bond Street corridor.
"The size, both the height and width, repeats the rhythm of other rowhouses in Fells Point. Particularly, 19th century [Bond Street] ones," said Romaine Somerville, director of development for the society. "Probably the single most important factor is that they don't overwhelm the existing architecture.
"Secondly, the arrangement of the windows also repeats the existing rhythm of the community in that they [are on all three stories] and elongated. Finally, the materials are compatible: the brick and the color of the brick.
"There is a certain amount of compromise in any of these things, but we're satisfied with where we stand now."
Rouse said the society's oversight "really added value to the project. They educated us to what the facade should look like."
The real value is in the interior, Rouse said.
"We offer about $100,000 of customizations, more than 75 different things that you can do to make the house cater to your desires," Rouse said. "And that is really where the art of homebuilding lies: the ability to deliver as much individual expression to the customer ... to deliver the highest value to the customer."
In this price range, the word "value" takes on new meaning when it comes to options.
The elevator costs an additional $39,000; the media room with stadium seating, $32,000; and the in-law suite above the garage, $34,900.
The rooftop sunroom is standard, but the deck will cost an additional $3,500.
For well-to-do buyer
Make no mistake: These houses are for the well-to-do buyer.
"It's trying to provide as much value as you possible can for these people when they are buying these homes in the city so that they can honestly say when they are done, 'Yeah, I bought a house in the city, and it's just as good as your house in the suburbs because I can go across the street to a restaurant,' " said Bill Zahler, director of Struever Rouse Homes.
In the past five years the average selling price for a resale house in Fells Point has risen from $90,331 in 1997 to $149,776 last year, according to the Metropolitan Regional Information Systems Inc., the multiple listing database used by real estate brokers.
Individual houses have sold before in Fells Point for about $500,000 range. 1717 Lancaster St. sold in August for $527,000; 928 Fell St. went for $585,000 in June 1999.
But with Rouse's higher prices, some wonder whether Baltimore buyers are ready to spend that much for Fells Point property.
"In one sense, it is astronomical to what we are used to, but when compared to other cities with lesser waterfronts, it's a bargain. And I think that's a part of why the demand is really there," said Rouse.
"I know the townhouses in HarborView, there are some that have sold for as much as $800,000, and even those, one can argue, [don't have] a better waterfront view than what these will have. We are not forging brand-new territory for the city of Baltimore. These are still a bargain compared to some of those."
Because of that, Struever Rouse Homes predicts that the houses will appreciate in much the way those in Canton and Locust Point have.
"Whetstone Point townhouses were designed to sell for between $175,000 to $200,000 and ended up selling $300,000 to $350,000," said Holbrook.
Rouse said of those who scoff at such talk, "I think they are going to think, 'I wish I would have bought back in 2002.'"
Maybe William Fell, if he were around today, would think the same thing.