Walk a few blocks west from the sparkling, born-anew inner harbor area of Baltimore and you might see Maureen Lachowicz sunning her two young children on the doorstep of a now-redone rowhouse that cost the family $1 about three years ago.
Fabric-designer Maureen and pharmacist husband Blaise Lachowicz also had to win a limited lottery (eligibles had to choose a specific house and random drawings determined the winners) to gain possession of the long, narrow old house they refurbished into a home.
Already they have spent nearly $40,000 (most of it with the help of a rehab loan of $30,000) to make the old Otterbein neighborhood house livable with three bedrooms and two baths, exposed interior brick walls and an attractive, new fireplace. Not all the interior work has been completed, and their 100 block of West Lee Street is just now getting new curbing and surface.
But this young family is delighted with the switch from rental to ownership housing that was made possible by the city of Baltimore's urban homesteading program of making tax-foreclosed or purchased old houses available to buyers who are tax-free occupants for at least two years. Even 7 percent rehab loans are available from the city and others at lower costs for persons eligible under federal programs.
Soon this redone home could probably command up to $90,000 in the Baltimore resale market. Now it would bring at least $150,000 in Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria. Not unexpectedly, the Lachowicz house with front yard and interior courtyard half-way back impressed a touring group of real estate writers from varied parts of the nation.
So did other aspects of Baltimore's comeback from looking old, grubby and woebegone. Downtown Charles Center's new buildings are less awesome than Chicago or Houston's high-rise profiles. But the result is less sterile. It's more romantic, too, with easy-walking adjacency to a park-like inner harbor area where tiny sailboats and pedal-pushers provide contrasts to the historic Constellation and new Pride of Baltimore (recently given a prodigal's welcome home from a good-will mission that ran into storms at sea).
The Baltimore comeback story is not finished. There are chapters and verses needing some reworking. But the plot has been developed. In addition to new downtown private and federal office buildings, there's a new hotel and others ready to be started. An attractive, $47-million convention center with structural glass trim is scheduled to open this summer before a Sons of Italy convention hits town.
More new apartments for the elderly will be built near the waterfront, where the Rouse Co. is ready to start the Harbor Plaza complex of high-priced shopping spaces that are expected to make "marketplace sense." The shops and restaurants should contribute excitement to an already tastefully manicured but non-sterile area that has a World Trade Center (an office) in place, an aquarium complex planned for a nearby pier and a Maryland Science Center on a corner near historic Federal Hill. That landmark mound on a shore south of the inner harbor has rowhouses being privately restored after bids up to $40,000 bought the homes "as is," parkland for concerts, baby buggying, kite-flying or just sitting in the sun.
Another exciting chapter in the contemporary Baltimore story involves development of the 22-acre Camden rail yard area, long idle, owned by the Chessie System. Eight acres have been dealt off as the site of a new Federal Reserve Bank, but Chessie Resources Inc. is working with Washington developer Oliver T. Carr on plans for a large mixed-use project that will involve new office buildings, recycling of a big old warehouse into condominium apartments and some commercial space.
This same Chessie area west of the inner harbor and the convention center can be viewed as a threat to the city's old retail center at Howard and Lexington streets. An extension of I-395 through the area is anticipated along with a nearby station for the first phase of the Baltimore subway system, now under way.
And, earlier this year, ground was broken for the first phase of another inner harbor west project, One West Conway Street, where the National Housing Partnership is working with Silver Spring builder Thomas P. Harkins in developing a 13-story apartment building that will provide 199 rental-subsidy dwellings for senior citizens. A second phase was include town houses for sale.
But not all of Baltimore's rebounding has been confined to the lower downtown Charles Center (where rebirth got its first boost 21 year ago) and inner harbor areas. Earlier, NHP was involved in the rehabilitation of the 96-unit Stafford, a former hotel, on historic Washington Place in downtown and also town houses in the Seton Hill restoration area and the modularly built, 11-story Waters Towers for occupancy by the elderly.
New construction within Baltimore's city limits earlier received major impetus from the Rouse-or-chestrated Village of Cross Keys on a former golf course just inside the northern city line. Under way since 1962, this 73-acre development abuts still prestigious Roland Park, one of the nation's first master-planned residential communities.
Cross Keys, where some of the new, large condominium apartments range over $100,000 includes town houses, garden apartments, mid-rise apartments, high-rise dwellings and a total recreation package with hotel facilities and shops and office space-all in a nicely landscaped setting in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead, who laid out Roland Park.
Additionally, hundreds of new ownership dwellings are occupied in the contemporary Coldspring "new town in town," where architect Moshe Safdie was the master planner. This primarily middle-class housing built by F.D. Rich Housing Corp. of Stamford, Conn., involves a northwest area on which 3,780 dwellings are imaginatively planned on an essentially hilly, 500-acre site. No trash cans are seen in Coldspring because refuse is chuted to an underground collection base.
With rehabilitation and new residential construction reawakened broadly in neighborhood-oriented Baltimore, prices have risen in recent years. But nothing like the rampant price appreciation in Washington, Southern California, Dallas or Seattle. In Baltimore, professionals tab a $350,000 house as among the most expensive on the market.
Generally, prices for resale and new houses are more than 20 percent less than similar dwellings would be in or near the District. There are two reasons-the lower wage and salary levels in Baltimore and thel lack of frenetic turnover that contributes to pricing escalation in a hot market. Baltimore is still mostly a beer drinking town, where martinis and margaritas are served in something less than profusion.
Long-time Baltimoreans, most of whom say "Bawlmer" while a few enunciate "Bal-ti-more," recognize their city has undergone a long post-war period of population loss. But city officials now insist that out-migration has been stemmed and that enthusiastic, make-things-happen business leaders, city officials and recent mayors-especially the incumbent William Donald Schaefer-have uprooted traditional civic defeatism.
The seaport city at the top of the Chesapeake is emphasizing the positive side of its heritage of good food, sports-mindedness, hospitality, sincerity and ethnicity (in town, old St. Alphonsus Church has an 8:30 Sunday mass in Lithuanian). Baltimore may have lost the Bullets to Washington but it still has the high-flying baseball Orioles and a Colt team that could bleach the Redskins almost any autumn.
A Cleveland visitor heard realtor Bernard Manekin discuss the Baltimore comeback and a still-growing spirit of civic cooperation and can-do.
"How about trading mayors with Cleveland?" was the light-hearted question. "No thanks," Manekin said with a smile, seeming to speak for all of Baltimore. CAPTION: Map, 1. Orchard/Biddle. 2. Social Security Center. 3. Lexington Market Transit Station. 4. Retail district. 5. University of Maryland. 6. Charles Center Apartments. 7. Camden Yards. 8. Bank Headquarters and Shop. 9. Convention Cener. 10. Inner Harbor West. 11. Constellation Place. 12. Federal Reserve Building. 13. Inner Harbor Shoreline. 14. Maryland Science Center. 15. Inner Harbor Playfields. 16. Harborfront Restaurant. 17. Bolton Hill Transit Station. 18. State Office Complex. 19. University of Baltimore. 20. Symphony Hall. 21. Waterloo Complex. 22. Downtown Racquet Club. 23. Financial District. 24. Northern Central Rail Terminal. 25. Charles Center Transit Station. 26. Municipal Center. 27. World Trade Center.28. Community College of Baltimore. 29. Market Place. 30. Aquarium. 31. Inner Harbor East. 32. Cruise Ship Terminal. Baltimore City Department of Planning