The Last Neighborhood
What's Going to Happen to Old-School Locust Point Now That It's the Hot New Place to Live?
"Locust Point rowhouses, unlike their more elaborate counterparts in other more 'renewable' sections of Baltimore will never become 'townhouses.' Locust Pointers would shudder at the very thought." --Baltimore News-American, Aug. 16, 1970
"Last month, owners took title to the last of 36 townhouses of Whetstone Point, a nearly block-square development in the heart of Locust Point, where the average home sold for $260,000." --The Sun, July 19, 2002
It's happy hour at L.P. Docks Tavern, and a dozen or so folks are knocking back less-than-a buck mugs of Bud amid the din of an Elton John oldie. "L.P." stands for Locust Point, the tidy South Baltimore rowhouse community hard up against Fort McHenry on the peninsula dividing the branches of the Patapsco River.
It's a workaday kind of pub. The Formica-topped bar is bathed in the blue neon glow of a sign reading package goods. Homey touches are provided by a framed photo of Johnny Unitas and a poster advertising a fund-raiser for a firefighters' widows and orphans fund. The Point is full of such corner bars, where generations of longshoremen and other hard hat-and-lunch pail workers quaffed post-shift beers.
But the times, as it's been said, are a-changing. This modest enclave will soon have its own health club, day spa, and wine bar. Towering portside container cranes have long been part of the skyward vista here, only now the outlines of roof decks compete for your overhead attention. Tens of millions of development dollars have been plunked down on the peninsula--and millions more are in the offing. The housing market has gone from nonexistent to over-the-top. A simple, two-story rowhouse will cost you upward of 200 grand. Locust Point is hot. It's happening. It has been "discovered."
"I wish all the changes weren't happening down here--the yuppies moving in," says Maggie Allen, tapping buttons on a video poker machine. "People in Locust Point are a lot different. This community has been the same since my father was a boy, and he's 80 years old now."
Allen admits she's originally from "up the hill," which is how locals describe South Baltimore beyond Lawrence Street, the Point's western boundary. But she's a Pointer now--has been for years--and says she's always had family down this way.
"Locust Point's been called 'God's Country,'" she says. "It's not a bad thing for other people to come here, it's just I don't like to see people I've known and loved all my life forced to change. I like it just the way it is."
L.P. Docks' sprightly proprietor, a sandy-haired senior with an infectious laugh who answers to "Lucky," has a different take.
"I don't have any problems with the new people," the longtime Locust Pointer says. But, she adds, "they're not used to change down here--they don't want to accept it.
"But, hey, times have changed and you got to go with the flow," she says, "You can't ignore it. That's life in the big city."
Her husband, Henry, nursing a beer beneath an American-flag ball cap, is more taciturn. He's still bitter about having lost his job at the Point's aged and towering grain elevator, which closed two years ago. His 38 years spent transferring grain from rail cars to steamships were severed with little fanfare. Of course, now there are ambitious, deep-pocketed plans to convert the hulking silo complex into a hotel or condos.
"I don't care about that," he says. "I'd rather they put everything back in there and let me get back to work."
And so a few minutes of bar chatter effectively conveys the diverse attitudes to be found along Locust Point's streets. Some fear change, some acknowledge its inevitability, and some see the morphing times overshadowed by recalcitrant economic concerns.
What's clear is that everyone loves Locust Point: the hard-working natives whose immigrant ancestors colonized the peninsula a century ago; the incoming professionals enamored with the quiet, safe streets and easy commuting options; and the host of developers poised to cash in on the community's mounting marketability.
The over-arching concern might be this: If all this emotion isn't effectively tempered, controlled, and channeled, will Locust Point be loved to death?
Dorian Keydash probably has the most recognizable face in all of Locust Point. A 6-foot image of his visage is emblazoned on a billboard mounted alongside Fort Avenue at the very entrance to the Point. The billboard was put up by the Century 21 real estate firm, where Keydash is an agent. Along with his grinning mug are the words locust point: welcome to my neighborhood.
It's not a case of real-estate bluster, as Keydash really does live in the Point. Indeed, his immigrant great-grandparents settled here at the turn of the last century. Keydash spent part of his childhood in Timonium but moved to Locust Point when he was 12. Accustomed to sprawling backyards and woods, he hated the urban environs. But since selling real estate has become the 24-year-old's calling, his tune has changed. "I thank my mother every day for moving us back here," he says.
Professionally, Keydash has good reason to embrace his 'hood. The urban gentrification movement that started in Federal Hill back in the 1970s has finally marched down Fort Avenue. The roof-deck renaissance that swept through Canton in the 1990s has jumped the harbor to land in Locust Point.
"It's the last hidden treasure," Keydash says. "Five years ago when people asked me were I lived, I said Federal Hill. Now I can say Locust Point because it's become a name."
Many people credit Tide Point, the Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse Co.'s $60 million rehab of a shuttered Procter and Gamble soap plant into a swanky office campus, for putting Locust Point on the real-estate radar. When the 400,000-square-foot complex overlooking the waterfront at the foot of Hull Street opened in 2001, it targeted dot-com companies and was viewed as linchpin in much-vaunted "Digital Harbor" effort to market Baltimore as a tech-friendly town. With the Internet boom now in remission, Struever has broadened the tenant base, and the facility is now fully leased--Web-based businesses alongside advertising firms, law offices, and health-care concerns.
In 2000, Struever Bros. converted a vacant Coca-Cola plant on Fort Avenue into new headquarters and factory for crabmeat giant Phillips Foods. Last year, the Baltimore-based development company completed the first new housing the Point has seen in nearly 75 years. The 36-unit townhouse project Whetstone Point sold out before the brick mortar was fully dry. And currently the company is rehabbing a former lead-processing factory at 921 Fort Ave. into a commercial/office facility dubbed Foundry at Fort. A Merritt Athletic Club is but one of several tenants signed on to occupy the 65,000-square-foot project. (Struever Bros. hasn't always had its way down here; its plans to erect dozens of townhouses on the site of a former paperboard recycling plant withered amid community opposition to the proposed problematic traffic patterns.)
The modest rowhouses in the shadow of all these projects are hot properties, indeed. Keydash, who's already sold more than half a dozen Point homes in the past year, can rattle off a litany surprising sales figures: a Stevenson Street rowhouse shell that sold in one day for $117,00, another gutted house on Reynolds Street--"no stairs, just walls and ceiling"--now listed at $125,000.
"The average Locust Point home price sale last year was around $122,000," Keydash says. "This is just a guesstimate, but I feel the average sale price this year will be around $225,000."
This ratcheted-up real-estate activity is a new phenomenon for Locust Point. Time was, you never saw for sale signs along the streets here. From the community's very beginnings, most houses were simply passed along through familial connections. And these connections run deep.
Locust Point--then called Whetstone Point--was still pasture when Fort McHenry famously withstood its long night of British bombardment in 1814. When residential streets blossomed on the peninsula by the in the second half of the 19th century, they were named after U.S. military leaders in the War of 1812--Hull, Decatur, Towson, and such. The B&O Railroad built trackage onto the Point, fueling a burgeoning shipping industry. Humans were a significant part of the cargo that landed here, as the Point is said to be second only to Ellis Island in the number of immigrants received.
Most arrivals hopped trains to become newly minted Americans elsewhere, but a few went no further than the trim rowhouses just up from the landing piers. As one Locust Pointer puts it, "There are really only about 12 core families in Locust Point--German, Polish, and Irish--and from their intermingling you got a neighborhood." Isolated, insular, and surrounded by ready maritime and industrial employment opportunities, Locust Point changed little throughout the 20th century, with generation after generation carrying a lunch pail down to work at the waterside.
In the 1960s and '70s, some younger Locust Pointers heeded the siren song of the suburbs, and the factory closing in the 1990s sped this trend along. Recent census figures show that the neighborhood has a surplus of seniors, but there are still plenty of young families whose lineage goes back to the old landing piers east of Nicholson Street. Many of the Pointers who left held onto their neighborhood properties. Until now.
"Today they're selling their grandmother's old house that she maybe [bought for] $4,000 for $200,000," Keydash says. Young professionals and empty nesters are the folks snapping up the houses, with real-estate agents billing the place as a peaceful, harborside alternative to Federal Hill, Fells Point, or Canton. ("I can't stress peaceful enough," Keydash says.)
Not all Pointers are embracing this new world. And Keydash notes that being a facilitator of the change--while also having deep familial roots in the community--can put him in an awkward position. "Some people think I'm the Antichrist, some people think I'm the greatest," he says.
Among those less than enamored with fevered influx of new residents is 23-year-old Laura Baykowski, a sixth-generation Locust Pointer and a recreation leader at the community rec center.
"It's not a like small community anymore," Baykowski says. "It used be like Mayberry here, with all the families knowing each other. A lot of the new people coming in don't have that community sense and keep to themselves. And with the prices going up on the houses, it's at the point that regular families can't even buy a house here."
Some newer residents, however, feel the Point's hardened old-timers deserve some of the blame for the sometimes-frosty atmosphere.
Tony Giro, 23, got fed up with life in Federal Hill--"too many bars, too many people"--and moved to Locust Point three years ago. Though he says he's in the neighborhood to stay, he does encounter a certain negative newcomer stigma.
"They're such a parochial people down here, they don't take kindly to us," says Giro, a Baltimore City schoolteacher. "There's a battle between those who want to keep things the same and those who see change coming. But we can't get the city out of the hole unless we build new houses and attract new residents."
The Point's swirl of issues led a group of University of Maryland urban-planning graduate students--under the direction of Professor Sidney Brower, a former Baltimore City planner--to undertake an exhaustive study of the neighborhood and its changes last year. Among the issues uncovered were the different ways new and old Point residents view the industrial sites that still proliferate in the community. Many established residents take the clamor of industry for granted, while some newbies are irked by its intrusive sights and sounds.
Michael Allen, a 58-year-old optician from Howard County, is still moving furniture into his new house at the corner of Cooksie and Beason streets, one of a strip of nine new townhouses completed this summer. (Allen has yet to spend a night in his house but already says he's "proud to be a Locust Pointer.") Despite the fact that the houses face Perishable Deliveries Inc., a bustling refrigerated trucking company facility where refrigeration units run noisily 24 hours a day, all of the new homes here have sold, with prices in the $330,000 to $350,000 range.
"That's eventually going to go," Allen says, motioning to the sprawling trucking firm from his rooftop deck. "It's a matter of real-estate values, and that's going to be a plus. You won't hear any complaints from me."
Allen is looking forward to the convenience of city living, and talks of using the water taxi that calls at Tide Point to visit downtown attractions and ball games. He also plans to fully participate in Locust Point affairs, seeing the walkable community in stark contrast to the anonymous, auto-centric suburbs where he knew few of his neighbors. And being branded a newbie doesn't trouble him.
"Every neighborhood is going to change," he says. "I moved to Westminster back in the 1970s, and we heard the same hue and cry from the people in Carroll County, complaining about all the newcomers coming, the tax rates going up, and all that."
There's no denying that Locust Point's white-hot housing market hasn't gone unnoticed by property tax assessors. Nearly one out of five Point property owners saw their assessments increase by upward of 100 percent between 1991 and 2001. Some fear that fixed-income Locust Point seniors--folks who find themselves asset rich but cash poor--might be hardest hit. Some government programs are in place to lessen the blow. The city's Homestead Credit program caps property tax increases for unimproved properties to 4 percent per three-year assessment cycle. And the state's Homeowner's Property Tax Credit program can assist low-income homeowners by refunding portions of their tax burden. Nevertheless, many Pointers--perhaps folks who haven't done any major improvements to their house since they slapped on Formstone back in the 1950s--are finding that the rising tide of renovations and home sales is lifting their tax bill as well.
Third-generation Locust Point native and state Del. Brian McHale (D-46th) is well aware of the gap between old and new Locust Pointers, but feels there's more that unites the groups than divides them, and that they "would probably agree on most things" regarding the community's future. What contention exists might be misdirected.
"To me the real concern ought to be about the developers," McHale says. "It doesn't matter if you've been here three generations or three days. If you plan to stay here any length of time, your everyday life is going to be impacted by the amount of development that occurs . . . and you don't want your destiny to be determined by developers."
The Oct. 29 meeting of the Locust Point Civic Association draws an overflow crowd, as most of the monthly meetings have since the debate over new development began to fill up the group's agenda. Elderly residents occupy most of the chairs filling the Locust Point Recreation Center's floor. A crush of hardier standees is forced up against a pool table and foosball game that have been hastily shoved to the rear of the room.
This evening, representatives from Perry Hall-based Ruppert Homes are presenting their plans to build some 70 townhouses along Decatur and Lowman streets. With drawings taped to the walls, they explain the various configurations they're considering, each tweaked a bit with an eye toward addressing the neighborhood's wishes for parking and green space. Based on the audible grumbling from the gallery, it's clear many feel the developer isn't doing enough.
"You're building a $28 million project here and you can't do nothing for the community?" asks one older resident (calculating an off-the-cuff estimate of the projects gross profit). A younger Pointer shouts back: "How about putting in a $28 million project--that's not doing something for us?"
When asked why Ruppert Homes is so hellbent to build in the Point, company head William Ruppert is pointedly candid.
"Because it's hot," he says. "We go where houses sell. This is a good neighborhood--one of the best in the city."
His last comments brought some applause from the assemblage, but prickly questions about increased traffic and tighter parking consume the rest of their presentation.
Next up, city officials take center stage to discuss a long-planned--and long-promised--extension of Key Highway eastward to Tide Point's entrance. City and state funds for the roughly 0.75-mile new roadway (estimated to cost anywhere from $5 million to $10 million) appear to be finally at hand. The new road should take pressure off the western end of Fort Avenue and some of the neighborhood streets. But longtime Pointers have heard this all before. There's more grumbling.
The meeting's pivotal moment comes when state Sen. George Della (D-46th), who represents the neighborhood, describes his recent Locust Point walking tour. Local civic leaders served as tour guides, pointing out all the planned, probable, or potential development projects and sites, marking each on a large map. The list is exhaustive. And when Della completes his last, somewhat monotone recitation of, "and the proposal for this site is new townhouses," he steps away from the map.
"It's not my place to make decisions for communities but to try and inform them as best I can," Della says. "Each and every person in this community should know what's going on in their community. I might add, if everything that's proposed on this map [gets built], the community will double in size."
At meeting's close, Walt Jubb, a city firefighter whose Locust Point roots go back more than 50 years, is clearly troubled by the night's news. The chief conundrum: How many new people--and new cars--can the Point take before the very attributes that make it attractive are undermined?
"What we've got here is a quiet, close-knit, peaceful community, and once that's gone you're not getting [it] back," Jubb says. "I'm not sure building more houses down here is the right thing to do. Maybe if we were not on a peninsula and you had through streets you'd less likely to be affected by new traffic, but this is a very unique area. It's almost like being on an island." (The Point's geographic limitations have birthed what's practically a mantra among many locals: "Just one way in and one way out"--a reference to Fort Avenue's role as community backbone and major east-west thoroughfare.)
"Some nice people have been moving here, and it's not that we're not happy to have them," says lifelong Pointer and civic association board member Betty Macioch. "But how much is too much? And we're not trained people, we're just ordinary citizens who live in the neighborhood."
The University of Maryland study's chief conclusion/recommendation was that Locust Point desperately needs a community plan. The study even suggested that the neighborhood create its own plan, and provided some possible funding sources to finance such an undertaking. Locust Point civic leaders, however, have placed their faith in the Baltimore City Department of Planning, which has begun to focus on the area.
"Locust Point is really a microcosm of the city," says planning director Otis Rolley III. "Of course we want development, but we want good development, and development should be guided by a plan or vision. It's dangerous when there is not a plan, as at the end of the day you might not get what everyone is happy with."
Rolley says it was Mayor O'Malley who requested that his department begin a study of Locust Point and its potential growth. "What level of density is satisfactory and unsatisfactory, and what can the infrastructure support--these are the types of issues we're examining," Rolley says. "The end result will be a land use and zoning plan for Locust Point. We should have a draft done in 90 days."
An unassuming gunmetal gray door marked danger high voltage leads into one of the most oddly impressive buildings in Baltimore: the lofty Locust Point grain elevator. Fort McHenry might be the Point's most famous building, but the massive grain elevator and silo complex that looms nearly 300 feet above Andre Street is surely the community's most conspicuous. And the monolith is in the center of another rabid debate, one concerning the Point's--and the city's--long-term economic direction.
Leading a tour of the 80-year-old edifice are Christopher Pfaeffle and Kirby Fowler, respectively lead architect and legal counsel for the Baltimore-based development team that hopes to convert the elevator and surrounding 15 acres into a mixed-use development: office space, condos, and possibly a hotel in the grain structure, surrounded by 130 townhouses. Organized as Silo Point LLC, the developers include Patrick Turner, whose Henrietta Corp. development firm has been busy in Federal Hill, converting the Southway bowling alley into apartments and the McHenry Theater into office space.
The elevator had been operated by the Decatur, Ill.-based agriculture products giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) until a large section of the specialized pier used to convey grain to ships collapsed in 2001. After squabbling with the Maryland Port Administration, which owns the pier, over who should pay for repairs, ADM opted to shutter the facility. It was sold to Silo Point this summer for $6.5 million.
"This is a huge icon for the community, and we think it be great to keep it active rather than have it be an industrial eyesore," Pfaeffle says. "It's going to be the most ambitious adaptive-reuse project Baltimore has ever seen."
For all its grandeur, Pfaeffle says the elevator is technologically antiquated and that ADM officials concluded that the region's dwindling grain trade didn't justify a costly upgrade. The stout construction and close proximity to residences would make demolishing the edifice expensive and problematic.
"We looked into how the building might be reused for industry," Pfaeffle says. "But today most industrial buildings are horizontal, like warehouses. There's really no way that this vertical building can be reused for industry."
While the end uses for the towering elevator are still up in the air, plans call for carving a parking garage out of the center of the collection of 90-foot-tall silos. The building's exterior would be cleaned and resurfaced, but otherwise unaltered, allowing the developer to apply for historic preservation tax credits. A new grid of streets will splay across the rest of the property to accommodate townhouse development. The project's price tag has been given at $200 million.
When Silo Point unveiled its plans at a September Locust Point Civic Association meeting, residents were alarmed by the project's size--concerned with its impact on traffic and parking, and even fearful that construction would discharge swarms of grain-fed rats into the neighborhood. The developers tout an independent traffic study they commissioned which indicates that the project would have a negligible impact on Fort Avenue, a road they brand as "underutilized." And the project, they say, will have more than enough on-site parking. As to the rat attack, Pfaeffle says there's no evidence of a rodent infestation within the complex. "ADM ran a very clean operation," he says.
Before Silo Point can become a reality, the City Council must pass an ordinance allowing residential and commercial use on the industrially zoned acreage. Fowler says they hope to achieve this transition via a Planned Unit Development--citing, as precedent, the PUD ordinance passed in 2002 green-lighting the mixed-use Canton Crossing project under development at a former industrial tract off Boston Street in East Baltimore.
Beyond the project's community quality of life concerns, some in the maritime trades lament the potential loss of 15 acres of industrial land just a stone's throw from the water's edge, and with easy access to rail and highway.
"I don't think it's prudent to rush into converting our industrial properties into residential or commercial uses," says Del. McHale, who when not serving in Annapolis works as a steamship clerk and is a second-generation member of a longshoreman's union. "For the city to have a future, it has to have diverse employment opportunities. Not everyone is a techie this or techie that. Is it good public policy to squeeze out maritime industry opportunities to let a developer make a windfall profit?"
Maryland Port Administration executive director James White expressed similar sentiments in the June 16 Baltimore Business Journal, going so far as to suggest the state should resort to court action to block Silo Point. Since this public statement of opposition, Fowler says the developers have been meeting with MPA officials to plead their case (and Fowler adds that "they are starting to come around" to accepting the project). Port Administration spokesman Richard Berkow says Silo Point's plans are "undergoing careful scrutiny, and we expect a report out in the very near future that will provide the official answers."
Concern over the future of the grain elevator site has rippled through Baltimore's private port community as well.
"Once you make property by the water's edge into residential housing, that property is lost forever as an opportunity to develop blue-collar jobs in the city of Baltimore," says Rupert Denney, general manager for C. Steinweg, a Dutch shipping firm that established a 21-acre facility near the entrance of Fort McHenry in 1998. "The Port of Baltimore . . . directly and indirectly employs an enormous amount of people who haven't had the benefit of higher education but who can make a reasonable-to-decent living working on the waterfront."
Denney says C. Steinweg, a transporter of metals and soft commodities (such as cocoa, coffee, and spices) with 55 employees in Baltimore, could use expansion room and looked into acquiring the grain elevator site. He feels his firm was priced out of the market after ADM valued the property, "on the assumption that its zoning was going to change." Denney adds that the rezoning of port land might discourage other shipping firms from buying into Baltimore. "Why would they want to invest $10 million [to buy port land] and suddenly have all sorts of community problems pop up when people end up moving next door?" he asks.
Fowler asserts that, due to the high costs associated with renovating the elevator complex, the Silo Point project only works in its entirety. "The [elevator] cannot be preserved and renovated without having some other economically viable project connected to it," he says. In short, revenues from the townhouse component will fund the elevator's rehab. Preserving some acreage for port use is not an option.
The developers hoped to have a bill before City Council by year's end. "It takes about three months to get through the council process," Fowler says. "If all goes well, six months from now we could be breaking ground--though that might be an aggressive schedule."
No tour of the elevator would be complete without a trip to the rooftop, which is equivalent to standing on the precipice of a 21-story building. The view is breathtaking. You can see the Towson skyline to the north, and folks say the Bay Bridge is discernable as well, but it's hard to determine which small nub on the horizon it might be. From this vantage, the curved rail yard and jutting port facilities surrounding the building resemble a model-train set.
The Locust Point neighborhood--all 1,100 or so houses--looks amazingly small from on high. But even from this perch the changes taking place are discernable--chiefly in the increasing number of rowhouses denuded of Formstone and presenting their original brick facades--the sure sign of a neighborhood in transition.
What this view will be like in five to 10 years--and whose penthouse patio one might potentially be standing on when you look at it--is uncertain. Static for more than a century, Locust Point is being thrust into a cauldron of prickly urban planning and socioeconomic issues. And nobody can yet guess the outcome.
Locust Point Civic Association President Joyce Bauerle spoke for all concerned when she said, "I honestly don't know what's going to happen here, or how it's going to change. I just hope the right decisions are made." She adds, "Years back, our problems were dirty yards and potholes. It's not that way anymore."
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