Saying the Johns Hopkins University neighborhood needs more "zap and zing," one of Baltimore's most prominent developers is buying up properties in a block of Charles Village that he hopes to transform into a shopping and residential hub near the campus.
The plan by Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse to buy most if not all of the 3200 block of St. Paul St. goes hand in hand with a development project by Hopkins leaders to reshape the streetscape of Charles Village, which seems destined for a face lift that planners hope will make it a more attractive place to live and work.
C. William Struever, head of Struever Bros., said the goal of his project -- which has bought five of 16 residential properties in the 3200 block -- is to infuse more college personality into the area. He declined to discuss specifics, noting that developers will meet with neighborhood leaders next month to talk about plans for the area.
"College campuses are such an incredible generator of energy, talent and ideas," Struever said. "What the city has to do is capture that energy to make a lively, prosperous college town."
Mayor Martin O'Malley greeted the news enthusiastically and said the project could enhance housing values in Charles Village.
"It looks like an exciting college-town concept. We don't do enough to create a business environment adjacent to college campuses," O'Malley said.
Last week, Hopkins officials discussed plans to build an off-campus bookstore on a neighboring East 33rd Street parcel -- part of an effort by the institution's leaders to reduce the barrier between the campus and the Charles Village neighborhood nearby.
Struever said he has had his eye on Charles Village ever since he first visited the university as a young man. "I thought, 'Man, this place needs some zap and zing,'" he said.
Hopkins officials said the Struever plans are a welcome accompaniment to their efforts for the bookstore, which they hope will be the anchor for other retail, housing and office space in the area.
"Any proposal to enhance the Charles Village area is a welcome initiative, with potential benefits for our students, faculty and staff, as well as our neighbors," said Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman.
Several years ago, city and community planners identified the 3200 block of St. Paul St. as a possible venue for retail development that would create a longer line of pedestrian shops leading up toward another institutional neighbor, Union Memorial Hospital.
Sandra Sparks, a community resident and leader who worked on one of the studies of the area, said the consensus was that it was not vital to preserve the existing rowhouses, many of which are occupied.
"The bookstore has huge potential for changing the dynamics of the whole neighborhood," she added.
Struever Bros. officials say their aim is to add to -- and not supplant -- Charles Village's existing block of shops, which include Eddie's Market, a corner ice cream parlor, two pubs and a coffeehouse.
"Whatever we do, we'll do in concert with Hopkins and the community," said Linda T. Lo Cascio, the senior development director of Struever Bros. "We're going to embark on a yearlong community process and include the right groups and players to help us fit the vision seamlessly into the neighborhood."
She added, "Charles Village looks like a hip, happening spot, but there's some real fragility and some merchants struggle. So we have to be strategic about the development program."
Lo Cascio said it's too early to say whether some of the existing buildings may be razed to make way for new enterprises. She said Struever Bros. has not ruled out "reusing" the rowhouses on the block now.
Struever said he's looking at buying properties on both sides of the block. The five homes bought by Struever Bros. so far have all been purchased since 2000, tax and property records show. The most recent purchase was made this month, with the firm paying $150,000 for a modest brick dwelling at 3208 St. Paul St.; three others sold in the $120,000 to $125,000 range, with the fifth selling for $91,500.
Real estate agents say the prices are consistent with the housing market in Charles Village, where the eclectic mix of restaurants and shops, as well as the university, enhance the neighborhood's appeal.
"Location, location, location. People can walk to shops, the university, the hospital," said Tim Rogers, president of the Hill & Co. real estate firm. "There are larger, wider townhouses, too."
Merchants in the area say they're optimistic.
"More is more people. Without [street-level shops], there would be a desert between here and the bookstore up on 33rd Street," said Jerry Gordon, proprietor of Eddie's. "I'm 100 percent for it. Sooner is better."
Gordon said he hoped the plans would lead to retail clusters along St. Paul Street similar to those on South Street in Philadelphia.
In particular, he said, residents need a hardware store and a bakery in walking distance.
Lewis Jacobson, who lives on the targeted block in a corner apartment building, said retail redevelopment would be welcome progress. "Why not? They'd improve it," he said.
Harry Goodman of St. Paul Cleaners said he liked the prospect of a host of new shops, activity and foot traffic.
"I see what students wear -- J. Crew and Banana Republic. [Clothes stores] would go gangbusters if you make this more of a college community," he said.
Sun researcher Sandy Levy contributed to this article.