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A workable new twist on the rowhouse concept

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For all their virtues, rowhouse neighborhoods share an inherent repetitiveness that tends to limit the pool of prospective residents.

But the builders of a new community in East Baltimore have broken free from many of the strictures that typically govern rowhouse design, opening new possibilities for mixed-income communities.

On one block, a three-story rowhouse features a mansard-style roof and dormer windows. The one next to it stands two stories tall and has a pitched roof. The end house rises three stories, with a pronounced cornice and flat roof.

These houses don't necessarily fall in a straight line, either. In one "row" along Fayette Street, each juts out farther than the next, creating a zigzag effect. They also step down a relatively steep hill, leaving one end of the row higher than the other.

Broadway Overlook is the name of the community that dares to rethink the rowhouse neighborhood, substituting variety for uniformity and idiosyncrasy for sameness.

The result is a neo-traditional enclave that offers a refreshing twist on multifamily housing in the 21st century. For a city seeking more residents at all income levels, it offers a wide range of floor plans and prices, while echoing the way the surrounding area evolved over time. Its eclectic design also makes a fitting statement about the economically diverse mix of people who will call it home.

Broadway Overlook is a $27 million, 166-unit community created in and around the old Church Home Hospital property at Broadway and Fayette streets. Landex Corp. of Baltimore began construction last July and opened its leasing office in March (Web site: www.broadwayoverlook.com). The first residences will be ready for occupancy by summer.

Result of a land swap

The community was constructed primarily to house the former residents of Broadway Homes, a low-income development that was razed three years ago. Built in the early 1970s, Broadway Homes consisted of a 23-story tower with garden apartments at its base. Baltimore housing officials received a federal Hope VI grant of $21.3 million to help fund construction of Broadway Overlook.

The replacement housing originally was to be built where Broadway Homes stood, at the southeast corner of Broadway and Orleans Street. The Church Home property became available when the hospital closed and the land was acquired by the nearby Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. Hopkins proposed a land swap that would give it control of the former Broadway Homes site, which was closer to its campus, and give Landex control of the Church Home property, which Hopkins didn't want.

Although the idea drew opposition from the community at first, the land swap turned out to be a boon for both parties. The previous housing site was relatively flat and exposed to busy Orleans Street, limiting its appeal for housing, but it works well for parking and other hospital needs. The Church Home parcel is closer to the established Washington Hill neighborhood and Baltimore's rejuvenated waterfront. It's one of the highest points in the city, offering sweeping views of the downtown skyline. It also had the historic hospital, which dates from 1836 and is well known as the place where the poet Edgar Allan Poe died in 1849.

Hope VI has been one of the community revitalization success stories of the past decade in Baltimore, providing funds to replace failed high-rise public housing with more humane, low-rise "communities of choice" throughout the city. Broadway Overlook is one of five Hope VI communities in Baltimore, along with Pleasant View Gardens, Lexington Terrace, Heritage Crossing and Flag House Courts.

The Broadway Overlook property is bounded by Fayette and Caroline streets, Fairmount Avenue and Broadway. Landex worked with Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh and local community representatives to create a master plan to guide development. Once that plan was set, Landex hired Marks, Thomas and Associates to be the project's architect of record and create the final design, with Faith Nevins, Michael Blake, Tom Terranova and Michael Crowley as key members of the design team. Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse is the general contractor.

Building in diversity

Because it is so close to Hopkins, Fells Point and downtown, Broadway Overlook has the potential to attract people seeking market-rate housing, as well as those eligible for federal subsidies. UDA's master plan called for 132 rental homes and 34 houses for sale. Of the rentals, 84 were for low-income residents and 48 were market rate.

With encouragement from community representatives, the development team sought ways to offer the widest possible range of housing options. There are two-, three- and four-story rowhouses, and one- and two-level apartments, in new construction and restored portions of the historic hospital. Rents for the non-subsidized apartments range from $700 to $2,000 a month. For-sale housing costs $120,000 to $180,000.

Ray Gindroz, chairman of Urban Design Associates and a leading figure in the New Urbanist design movement, said his team was concerned about creating a neighborhood that would fit seamlessly with the surrounding area, not making an architectural statement about economic diversity. He calls the approach "contextual New Urbanism."

Gindroz said community representatives encouraged the design team to study Washington Hill and see how the buildings took shape over time, with a mix of building styles on the same block. "The more we looked at it," he said, "the more intrigued we became by how much diversity there was."

Gindroz doesn't deny that architectural variety can also be a useful way to break down stereotypes and promote economic diversity within a new community.

"One of the challenges in Baltimore is that there are so many long rowhouse streets and not enough diversity of housing types," he said.

"We find that diversity is best accommodated with a diverse environment," he continued. "The more elaborate it is, the harder it is to tell who lives there."

Income levels will vary

While UDA set the tone for architectural variety, Marks Thomas continued the theme, creating designs that evoke 19th-century houses of East Baltimore. A three-story, 56-unit apartment building on Broadway mirrors the facades of the houses across the street.

Besides emulating the incremental buildup of Washington Hill, the variety of housing types provided a graceful way to negotiate the hilly terrain, Nevins said. "If it were all the same, it would look very steep."

There is no direct correlation between the rowhouse designs and the income levels of the people who will live there. It's too simplistic to say that the two-story buildings will all be for the less affluent residents and the three-story dwellings will be for the richest. In some cases, three-story structures actually house a two-level apartment over a one-level unit designed for people with disabilities, and the two-story buildings have more square footage.

Still, the visual effect is of a community that can accommodate people with many different income levels and housing needs - individuals and families, students and professionals, working class and well-heeled. In a sense, it's a reversal of some earlier experiments in mixed-income housing, where tenants on a subsidy and tenants not on a subsidy were assigned the same unit type, with no one knowing the difference.

The most unusual homes are the ones with the zigzag fronts that follow Fayette Street. The composition isn't tidy, as in many cookie-cutter communities. These houses sort of tumble down the hill, and they're more expensive to build, with all their protrusions and level changes. But they make the point that this is not a predictable, homogeneous rowhouse community, if such a thing exists. One size doesn't fit all. It's more like a real city.

The architects of Broadway Overlook may not have set out to make a statement about economic diversity in multifamily housing, but that's what they did. Rows of identical or near identical dwellings have their place in the city, and make their own commentary about who lives there. But as Baltimore's leaders seek to convince more people to live in the city, they'll need many different examples of innovative housing to serve as an incentive. Broadway Overlook is a welcome addition to the mix.

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