Upscale ambitions for Pigtown


When Lindsay Bramwell looks at 769 Washington Blvd. in Pigtown, she doesn't see the sad facade of a former variety store, its peeling beige paint and boarded-up door.

Rather, it's a thriving business and residence, all glass and light and cutting-edge solar technology. People who live there dine at the restaurant downstairs and stretch in the rooftop yoga studio surrounded by a tranquil garden. With hopes that there are more investors who can see such potential in Pigtown's main commercial artery, the city has taken the drastic step of acquiring a dozen Washington Boulevard properties, its most sweeping use of eminent domain since its efforts to redevelop downtown's west side.

But unlike with downtown, where the city concentrated its spending power to buy huge former office buildings that when redeveloped could transform entire blocks, the Pigtown plan is not as sweeping.

It involves spending about $1 million to buy individual run-down and derelict storefronts, and then selling them to developers who will take Bramwell's lead and, bit by bit, bring business back to Pigtown.

Though the new projects won't be grand in scale, they'll be meaningful to the already gentrifying neighborhood, where residential improvements have far outpaced commercial ones, possibly because the business strip looked so hopeless.

"Most people look at derelict properties as a public-safety liability," said Jack Danna, Washington Boulevard Main Street Program manager. "What they really are is an economic development issue."

By replacing the neighborhood's longtime problem spots with viable businesses, Pigtown can begin to realize its potential, Danna said. "Within the next two years, we'll have a block here with enough synergy to attract even more business.

"Why do we have to have check-cashing places, and why do we have to have restaurants that are strictly carryout? This is a neighborhood that deserves amenities."

Yesterday morning, Mayor Martin O'Malley signed an amendment to Pigtown's urban renewal plan that authorizes the use of eminent domain, meaning the city can seize the properties and compensate the property owners.

The ceremony took place at a Washington Boulevard coffeeshop called Porters, a hip gathering spot that opened in 2003. The shop offers lattes served amid jazz and art and exposed brick.

As he signed the ceremonial document, O'Malley commended residents for fighting blight and condemned negligent property owners who foster it.

"We are not about to let them bring down what we are working to build up," O'Malley said.

Pigtown, on the southwestern outskirts of downtown not far from Camden Yards, is well-situated for growth. It's blocks from the University of Maryland at Baltimore and its burgeoning biotech facilities; a townhouse community called Camden Crossing is rising on one of the neighborhood's former vacant lots, and the proximity to MARC trains could lure D.C. commuters.

With this renaissance - and it's more official name of Washington Village - Pigtown hopes to shed its old image. The neighborhood gets its name from the days when pigs were unloaded from trains there and herded through its streets to South Baltimore slaughterhouses.

Yet, with the exception of Porters, Washington Boulevard boasts little more ambitious than a dry cleaners, a sub shop and a beauty parlor. Vacant properties and long-closed businesses fill in the rest of the boulevard, bringing down what little the area has.

"If we don't fix up this corridor, those folks will leak out of the neighborhood again," said Shawn McIntosh, executive director of the Washington Village/Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council.

For more than four years the community hoped to shame wayward property owners into fixing or selling their buildings by nagging code enforcement officers to write citation after citation on them. Despite a long list of violations, it hasn't worked.

"The problem of houses sitting in the middle of the block that the landlord won't fix up and won't sell - that's the biggest problem in Pigtown," said longtime resident Bus Chambers, adding that the blight has a tendency to spread. "It's like two bad teeth in your mouth - if you let it go, next thing you know you've got three decaying." At the end of their rope, community leaders said they turned to eminent domain.

The city expects to acquire the properties in the 700, 800 and 900 blocks of Washington Blvd. Developers will have an opportunity to bid on the properties, most likely bundled in small clusters, as soon as this spring, according to Mary Pat Fannon, director of the Main Streets program arm of the Baltimore Development Corp.

Bramwell, a public health nurse from Ruxton who, along with her son, Bo, is renovating the former Blue Note Variety into an apartment building with a yoga studio and a restaurant, said that her investment in Pigtown feels like getting in on the ground floor of a good thing.

"I love this neighborhood because it's so eclectic," she said. "We're going to be cooler than Georgetown."

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