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Downtown, the city's fastest-growing 'hood

In Sunday's column, I mentioned the shifting of what we consider downtown Baltimore from the old central business district to the city-within-a-city, Harbor East, created by "the Bread Man." John Paterakis, who made a fortune baking hamburger buns for McDonald's, invested in the old industrial parcels between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. His investment, sweetened with tax breaks and other incentives from the city, has paid off big-time, and even those of us who ridiculed the long-gone Schmoke administration's decision to give millions to a millionaire have to acknowledge it.

But Harbor East today is hardly the quaint, three-story townhouse neighborhood Mr. Paterakis had originally envisioned and pitched to nearby communities. With skyscraping hotels and office buildings, it has become a big, muscular shoulder of downtown Baltimore, soon to be enhanced by an Exelon-Constellation headquarters on the waterfront. There are residences in Harbor East, but that's not the area's lead story.

It has become, however, the lead story of the old business district — to the west, centered at Pratt and Light, in what the U.S. Census Bureaucalls Tract 401. Those who wring their hands over the future of downtown Baltimore in light of the Exelon-Constellation site selection in Harbor East can take some relief, if not excitement, from the 2010 census. It shows that Tract 401 was the fastest-growing Baltimore "neighborhood" over the previous decade.

And please note: Tract 401 does not include Harbor East.

It is bounded by Franklin Street on the north and Pratt Street on the south, on the west by Paca Street and on the east by President. Given all its office space, that's hardly what a longtime Baltimorean would call a city "neighborhood." But 40,000 people now live within a mile radius of Pratt and Light, and Tract 401 grew from 1,700 residents in 2000 to 4,000 in 2010. That's according to census figures provided by the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

The DPB describes the 401 population as "young professionals looking for a vibrant post-college home; retirees trading county homes for city living; students taking advantage of our stellar academic institutions; DC commuters living better for less ..." There's plenty of diversity, too. The DPB says half of 401 residents consider themselves minorities.

The DPB has been pushing for more conversions of old office buildings into apartments and condominiums — they are actually in demand, says its president, Kirby Fowler — so there's no telling how much the area's population could grow.

"Our apartment occupancy rate is 97 percent, with the most notable buildings carrying wait lists," says Mr. Fowler. "We are trying to keep the momentum going and create a soul and vibe for downtown that is more appropriate for a mixed-use neighborhood — unlike the relatively boring atmosphere that dominated when the commercial office market identified Charles and Baltimore streets as its epicenter."

Yes, and the city emptied out at night, quickly, to the outlying neighborhoods and the suburbs. That still happens in a big way, of course, but the numbers indicate a trend toward a new wave of downtown dwellers who like — and can afford — city life or hate the prospect of long daily commutes (at $4 or $5 a gallon for gasoline).

Mr. Fowler and the Downtown Partnership are still interested in attracting new businesses to Tract 401 — particularly because of the effect of Constellation Energy's eventual move out of its present location, on East Pratt near President Street, into the new Exelon-Constellation tower at Harbor Point.

There are a lot of old buildings, still smarting from the downsizing that occurred during the Great Recession, and they need major makeovers. Many of those proud, old towers could provide better payoffs for investors if they are reborn as residential space. There already are excellent examples of successful conversions — The Standard, the Munsey, 29 West Lexington, to name just a few — and the DPB is pushing for more.

Harbor Point's gains might seem like the old business district's losses. But assuming more downtown job growth over time and more people wishing to live just a few blocks from work and waterfront, the demand for residential space in Tract 401 should continue. Downtown Baltimore is not collapsing; it's shifting.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Follow him on Twitter at DanRodricks and on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/dan.rodricks. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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