One of Baltimore’s most beautiful neighborhoods is dying

No, not San Francisco. This block is in Reservoir Hill, a dying neighborhood in Baltimore

No, not San Francisco. This block is in Reservoir Hill, a dying neighborhood in Baltimore

Baltimore has an increasing collection of lively neighborhoods sprouting new residents, businesses, and construction.  Their vibrancy vividly contrasts with nearby neighborhoods besieged by abandonment and decades of depression-level disinvestment.  Many are aware of this pronounced dichotomy. However, there are neighborhoods between these extremes. One indicator of Baltimore’s progress should be the trajectory of these tweener neighborhoods. Improving neighborhoods offer valuable lessons for those regressing.

This article will briefly analyze three historic neighborhoods; Hampden (improving), Remington (improving), and Reservoir Hill (regressing). These neighborhoods are clustered close together about four miles from Baltimore’s glitzy harbor on different sides of the 750 acre Druid Hill Park and Interstate 83.

The Avenue in Hampden is the spine of this revitalizing mixed-use neighborhood

The Avenue in Hampden is the spine of this revitalizing mixed-use neighborhood

Hampden is an unlikely  success story.  It has created a destination restaurant and retail scene, driven largely by independent local entrepreneurs that punches way above its weight class. Its primary retail street, “The Avenue” is integrated into an affordable neighborhood with a mixture of bare bones row houses and single family homes. Hampden, with about 7000 residents, has well over a 100 small businesses.

The neighborhood’s charm and success comes from the energy of its kitschy residents mixed with a homespun entrepreneurial spirit. Forbes magazine honored Hampden as America’s 15th best hipster neighborhood. The criteria? Walkability, coffee shops per capita, the assortment of local food trucks, the number of locally owned bars and restaurants and the percentage of residents working in the arts.

Remington is on the cusp. Corner stores and restaurants give the neighborhood flavor. A private sector developer, Seawall, has buoyed Remington by developing creative mixed-use projects. Seawall has recruited clusters of educational non-profits as well as renovated the Miller’s Court into apartments for Teach for America.  Most interesting, Seawall is partnering with the Single Carrot Theatre to renovate Mr. James Tire Shop into performance space, restaurants, and nonprofit office space. The Company is doubling down. It has plans to build a “massive” main street of independent stores with residences above.

Remington’s resurgence is poised to accelerate with the creation of the Homewood Community Partners Initiative launched in 2012 and funded by Johns Hopkins.  This fund has $10 million dedicated to the “physical, social, and economic well-being of its surrounding neighborhoods.”

Vacancy in Reservoir Hill

Vacancy-an all to common sight in Reservoir Hill

Reservoir Hill, historically the strongest of the three neighborhoods, is a sick patient.  Its population is dropping to near 6000. The neighborhood’s bounty of beautiful historic buildings and homes is shrinking. Grand rows of houses are pockmarked by emergency demolitions. It is plagued by vacancy and troubled by crime. Market values often are less than renovation costs, which makes investment a risky proposition. Demolition is as common as renovation. Unlike Hampden’s abundance, obviously helpful enterprising businesses don’t exist in Reservoir Hill.

Reservoir Hill is only sick, not dead. It attracts architecturally inspired home-buyers. Eutaw and Madison Streets are still relatively healthy.  There are many residents who care about it. However, these strong blocks are slowly losing inch by inch a long running tug-of-war with nearby blocks in desperate shape.

My analysis is simple.  Reservoir Hill cannot remain a residential island with no businesses, offices, retail, and restaurants. A housing only strategy is not going to work. For decades, its promotion, energy, and resources have been spent on (affordable) housing.  Reservoir Hill’s current housing programs; Vacants to Value and Healthy Neighborhoods will lead to home renovations, but not reverse the tide of the neighborhood. HUD and Baltimore HCD programs should also not be relied on to turn around neighborhoods. They are much better at housing and social services than they are urban and community development.  Their core competencies are not restoring market confidence in declining neighborhoods.

The Reservoir Hill Improvement Council (RHIC), with roots that date to the late 1970′s have also not been able to turn the neighborhood around.  Its approach is notable for its lack of interest and expertise in fostering neighborhood business enterprises. RHIC could be far more useful if it had the focus, talent and resources to recruit and nurture small businesses. A new organization, the Mount Royal CDC was launched in December 2013.

The data on population and vacancy show Reservoir Hill is unequivocally failing.  For the neighborhood to reverse course, Reservoir Hill must become more like Hampden and Remington. It must energetically seek small entrepreneurs, artists, businesses, and restaurateurs. Of Baltimore’s urban neighborhoods, those with desirable commerce have the brightest futures. Attracting a neighborhood-minded creative developer like Seawall would be an immense coup.  City, institutional, and philanthropic partners could help. Historic preservation advocates are natural allies. Without a profoundly new strategy, Reservoir Hill’s trajectory is unambiguous.

Reservoir Hill's trajectory is clear. The neighborhood can ascend, but new strategies are needed

Reservoir Hill’s trajectory is clear. The neighborhood can ascend, but new strategies are needed

By attracting entrepreneurial investment and a new mix of people, there might be blow back from a myopic few concerned about theoretical gentrification. In Baltimore, far more affordable housing is lost to disinvestment and uninhabitable buildings, than rent increases. More people leave, not because they are priced out, but because other neighborhoods offer more.

Vacant mansion in Reservoir Hill

Vacant mansion in Reservoir Hill

Reservoir Hill is important.  Its substantial architectural assets, diverse housing stock adjacent to a beautiful park, and access to major transportation arteries, give it an advantage over other declining neighborhoods.    A robust Reservoir Hill turnaround could stimulate the resurgence of other neighborhoods west of Druid Hill Park that are in worse shape.

Teetering neighborhoods in Baltimore and other rust belt cities should recognize a relatively simple reality. Urban neighborhoods with retail, restaurants, and businesses are doing better. Millennials and empty nesters are coming to urban neighborhoods, but they are not likely to pick yours if there is nothing to do.

JL

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Administrator and writer for Comeback City

21 Responses to One of Baltimore’s most beautiful neighborhoods is dying

  1. Patrick Henderson says:

    The problem in Reservoir Hill is too many renters. These gorgeous house need people that can afford to heat and maintain them is the past glory. Re-gentrification will eventually take over, which will be a blessing and a curse, but everything must change. Young black professionals don’t seem to like old houses, unless they have been modernized and then there are still reservations about buying them. A strong neighborhood association would help, if they can get the community involved. When I moved here in 1998, I almost bought a house in Reservoir Hill. I was turned off by people sitting on stoops and obviously unemployed men hanging out on the corners, I chose Ashburton instead and I am happy I made that choice, as nothing has changed in Reservoir Hill. What young progressive people would invest in a neighborhood with this kind of safety risks, not only physically but to the investment, that they hope will become more valuable as time goes by? All is not lost, but until the community comes together and gets organized, incorporate the police department and encourage more home owners and landlords that carefully monitor who they rent to, Reservoir Hill will remain that diamond in the dust, which is sad.

    • Homeowners are always nice. However, millennnials are the demographic group coming to Baltimore city and at the moment, they are a generation of renters. RH would do well to have a surge of upwardly mobile millennial renters, whose purchasing power could help support commerce. This trend has been an instrumental component in the revival of Mt. Vernon, which incidentally also has big houses mixed with lots of apartments.

    • Please consider this as a addendum to the current discussion about Reservoir Hill. http://www.reservoirhill.net/history/walkingtour.htm

      Reservoir Hill is not dying. In fact, in some ways the current hiatus may be healthy because speculation during the go-go years drove prices to ridiculous levels.

      I have been living in Baltimore since 1969. Never in Reservoir Hill, but for a time in neighboring Bolton Hill. In both areas, I have witnessed many ups and downs. Today’s Reservoir Hill is far healthier than ever since the 1968 riots.. I have great faith in the neighborhood because of its proximity to Druid Hill Park.

      No one, it seems, has addressed a central point of the article: Retail. Because Whitelock Street’s commercial core eroded into a drug strip in the 1970s and 1980s,Mayor Schmoke’s housing commissioner, Daniel Henson, decided to demolish it. Since then, it has become an article of faith that all retail must stay on North Avenue, a problematic stretch catering to the black underclass. As a result, Whitelock Street lies fallow, occupied by a community garden and vacant land.

      I, for one, have always thought this is nonsensical, although I understand the thinking. Race and class are essential part of the Reservoir Hill gentrification discussion. (I hate that misnomer because the opposite of “gentrification” is continued slummification). If retail were to return to Whitelock Street, there is no guarantee that what started as a bagel shop wouldn’t turn into a takeout pizza place, or dollar store. Lake trout, anyone?

      Hampden (and perhaps Remoington in the future) benefits from all the aging hippies now living in Roland Park, who want eclectic shopping. Reservoir Hill, aside from the Beth Am Congregation, is not a magnet. But Druid Hill Park increasingly is.

      Anyone interested in Reservoir Hill’s evolution should read my book.

      • Carl Young says:

        One point about the Whitelock commercial district before it was demolished: neighbors tell me that it was in a sorry state before it was leveled. Burned-out store fronts and shooting galleries. Many residents lobbied to have the commercial district torn down in the interest of public safety. Hindsight is 20/20 of course and oh that it could have been saved! But at the time, many folks were given relief from the blight. I understand that there were some great shops there back in the day.

  2. Carl Young says:

    The blog ignores the differences that these three neighborhoods had to start with. Remington and Hampden had intact, cheap commercial space where Reservoir Hill’s historical commercial districts on North and on Whitelock were destroyed decades ago. Reservoir Hill knows that amenities are needed and there are a number of initiatives under way, but unfortunately it’s got to be done by green-building instead of repurposing old store fronts. Meanwhile the quality of life has improved markedly for residents in many parts of Reservoir Hill during the 9 years that I’ve lived there. And the houses are twice the size of the houses in the other two neighborhoods, so if you want space – come to Reservoir Hill.

    • I totally agree. This article declares absolute death of Reservoir Hill, albeit thinly veiled. It wasn’t 7 months ago that The Sun declared Reservoir Hill the greatest success stories in revitalization. The main arterial corridor of Eutaw Place is beautiful. Work needs to be done; but it’s hardly dying….it just needs public attention.

      • Reservoir Hill has had spurts of positive momentum over the decades, especially when the overall economy is good. However, RH has not been able to sustain the momentum, and the data shows it has lost ground. The author does not declare death, but suggests RH look to Hampden and Remington, which are on the upswing in a way that is likely to sustain itself.

        The linked article is a hopeful article from 1994.

        http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-08-13/news/1994225057_1_reservoir-hill-druid-lake-druid-hill-park

      • Sabina Pade says:

        I think that Old Goucher, and the work being done there by Telesis, is a better example to draw upon than are Remington and Hampden. Houses in Hampden and Remington are mostly small, and inexpensive; also, violent crime has long been relatively absent in those neighborhoods. Old Goucher, by contrast, has large, architecturally interesting homes, and significant levels of prostitution and violent crime. Telesis has bought up entire rows of houses there, and renovated them to admirable standards esthetically and functionally. In so doing, Telesis is giving gentrification a far better chance than it would have were the matter dependent solely upon hardy homesteaders willing to own an isolated well-maintained dwelling.

  3. Ronald M says:

    Reservoir Hill is a gem that is dimly gleaming. Although it’s commercial has been desimated, the proximity to Charles North and Mount Royal/Belvedere neighborhoods are in walking and biking distances. Residing here for 3 years, I am pleased. My home, rather than rental has afforded my daughter and two grands to reside under the same roof, in two large apartments. This is a much better living situation than my former, 3,000 square foot, Harford County home. In addition, I enjoy the residency of tenants of MICA as my neighbors. As I travel, I enjoy the light rail ride to downtown and to BWI.

  4. Eric Hontz says:

    Reservoir Hill has been the perennial “up and coming” neighborhood in Baltimore for nearly two decades. However, there are some signs of change that may kick start a virtuous cycle of development. On the north side of the neighborhood you have the large DPW drinking water project that will transform Druid Hill Park in a dramatic fashion. With City Recs & Parks has the opportunity to double down on the investment by creating increased pedestrian access and renovating existing facilities. On the south side the elementry school will be renovated under the ten year city wide school rebuilding plan in year one. So the neighborhood has two high profile /high dollar investments on either end.

    I moved to the neighborhood in August and I can say the one thing that’s lacking is a few commercial establishments that provide for foot traffic during the day and evening. Butcher’s Hill has Salt and Bolton Hill has B and Mt Royal Tavern. I hope entrepreneurs notice the opportunity.

    • Sabina Pade says:

      Agreed that restoration of easy access to Druid Hill Park would be a big asset to Reservoir Hill, and a draw for new residents. Let’s hope that City Hall gets this one right. It’s an historic opportunity to correct the blunder that was made when an urban expressway was allowed to sever the Park from the rest of the city.

  5. Steph says:

    A huge wave of recent urban planning theory is based on developing “learing communities.” The fact the renters in Reminton and Hampton are mostly college students with bank accounts filled either by parents or with student loan dollars. Centers of higher education attract students, professors, research and grant $, support from University housing officials (as Hopkins and MICA openly acknowledge a severe lack of univeristy-owned housing), and investiment from small business owners. Most notably in Hampden, you see that artists who have studied at MICA have turned around and set up permanent shop near by.

    This article ignores the impact of a serious part of a Baltimore neighborhood’s history, namely race. It wasn’t that long ago my art professor at Loyola was seriously considering abandoning a property in Hampton (around 1999) because there was too much violence between the historically-white neighborhood and new black residents. She thought she was purchasing a great house just steps from her new job only to face ignorant and violent neighbors. It took tons of community involvement to get Hampton where it is now. Everyone has to start somewhere…I think RH has a chance…

  6. Ed Weiss says:

    I think retail is essential for any neighborhood to make a turnaround. Home ownership is overrated. But the commitment of the property owner is important, as slumlords will bring any neighborhood down.

  7. Jon says:

    I think the writer makes a really good point. I love the architecture in Reservoir Hill and the home prices are tempting given the size of the houses. But I would not want to live there when there is little or no (legal) commercial activity. In Charles Village, I can walk to Charles Village Pub, Eddie’s Market, and a number of restaurants. In RH, I would need to get in a car and drive to another neighborhood if I wanted to get a drink or buy food. If I wanted to live like that, I might as well choose a suburb where I would also enjoy a lower risk of crime.

  8. One Step From Selling says:

    I moved into Reservoir Hill in 2006. At that time, I purchased and renovated a home. As a single mother of two, an African American and relatively young professional…..I loved the challenge. However, it is becoming very tiresome. Property investors continue to buy homes and simply turn them into rentals. The public housing complex known as Madison Park North continues to operate with unrelenting drug sales and violence, young impoverished single mothers and the only businesses in our community are a local chicken shack, liquor store and coin-op laundry. Oh how I crave a dry cleaner, coffee shop or bakery! My now young adult children refuse to move back home after they complete school because both have been robbed within blocks of our home and witnessed murders from our front steps in broad daylight! No Lie! I love the beauty of my home, I just hate that this City will not do what other cities have done and simply demand accountability from residents and property owners, create a viable community for taxpaying homeowners and renters to thrive. I’m one mortgage payment away from leaving this house and the State of Maryland after my most recent tax bill. How dare the Baltimore assess my home for more than any house has sold in this area for the past seven years! As long as men’s board homes, public housing, drug dealing and no real business investments exists in my neighborhood, you will loose people like me that have invested their passion, time, money and care into trying to help make Baltimore better!

    • ... says:

      Sorry to hear about your experiences, One Step. I’ve wondered how much of Res Hill’s perpetual up-and-coming-ness without ever really improving is related to Madison Park North. There are a lot of positives to the neighborhood (great bones, some residents who clearly love it and want it to work, great neighborhoods to the south and east), but the anecdotes I hear about MPN suggest it’s a major, major drag.

  9. Baltplanner says:

    Redevelopment tends to happen adjacent to already stable and/or attractive neighborhoods (in planning we call this the “edge effect”). In addition, adjacency to amenities (shopping, restaurants, transportation options, views of the water, parks) and a distancing from locally unwanted land uses (LuLu’s) helps to speed the pace of redevelopment (common LuLu’s in Baltimore include methadone clinics, homeless shelters, public housing complexes, large, always active MTA hubs etc). Lower crime, especially through geographic isolation, will also help (locust point for instance is somewhat protected from criminal spillover from the rest of the city because its isolated on a peninsula and is difficult to get to without a car).

    When I combine these factors together the neighborhoods that seem the most set to redevelop are Remington, Woodberry, Station North/ Greenmount West, Highlandtown, Little Italy, Locust Point, and Downtown (especially the central and eastern portions).

    Each neighborhood represents its own benefits and challenges and some are more fit for large developers and others for small private developers. I’d guess Downtown and Remington will probably happen the fastest since, at least in my opinion, they have the best combinations of incentives.

    The biggest problem to all of this is city-wide demand. As an example DC saw rapid redevelopment because of the huge growth in its employment base. While as a region we have decent high paying employment growth, its nothing compared to other cities that have seen large booms (Charlotte, Seattle, DC, etc). Also most of the employment gains have been outside of the center city.

    This brings me to my next conclusion. Baltimore is too large for its own good and needs to “right size itself”. The ratios of people to jobs and infrastructure/ government services to the tax base are way off. Poor people and lower middle income families seeking to find better job opportunities will have an easier time doing so outside of city limits. This will end up improving the quality of life for almost everyone involved (excluding criminals and those too poor to own a private vehicle and non-project housing). Currently poor black people are leaving at approximately the same rate that yuppies (from all racial and ethnic backgrounds…but mostly white) and 1st and 2nd generation Asian and Hispanic immigrants are moving into the city. I don’t see any reason for this pattern to change significantly (except for a slowing down of Hispanic immigration) for the remainder of the millennial population’s demographic bubble. The bubble should start to wind down around 2024, giving the city ten more years of potential for higher pace socioeconomic restructuring… that is if they mange development, lulu’s and incentives well.

    See for more http://www.city-data.com/forum/baltimore/2012805-baltimores-slow-pace-towards-gentrification.html of the discussion.

  10. Minneapolis loves Baltimore says:

    Good Article. I live in Minneapolis but used to live in DC and LOVE Baltimore. I almost moved there but the job offer I was anticipating fell through.

    Anyway, what about race? Hampden is a historically working class white neighborhood that stayed mostly white through the 70s, 80s, and 90s correct? It is much easier to revitalize an already white neighborhood. I don’t like this fact either but I think that it is empirically true (See Williamsburg, Fishtown, Kensington, many Northside Chicago neighborhoods, etc). What are the demographics of Reservoir Hill?

    With regards to the retail vs. home ownership as the catalyst for revitalization. Most first stage retail and restaurant entrepreneurs locate their initial business close to where they live. So home ownership comes first. When “One Step From Selling” says that she craves a certain business type, it is her or her neighbors that need to open it. This is because they are the people that best understand the neighborhood trade area and therefore the risk profile of the enterprise. The home ownership piece is also pertinent to the “millennials rent” question in that millennials prefer to rent high quality housing stock, mostly from engaged home owners that are looking to add an income component to their residential property. Also, like the retail entrepreneurs, pioneering home owners also best know the market for renters and the amenities they demand (hard wood floors vs. carpet, nice cabinets, etc.) and are prepared to make the necessary investment.

  11. Peter D says:

    I must express my continuing frustration that community commercial development isn’t even recognized as a priority by most decision makers and even community leaders. Reservoir Hill is a great example of trying to do residential development without commercial development. The other place that comes to mind is Oliver. When Oliver redevelopment inevitably hits a wall, everyone will wonder why.

    Here it the crucial question that our leaders have to answer: How many people will want to live in a city neighborhood when they still have to drive everywhere? Or, If you have to drive everywhere, why not live in a true suburb?

    Great architecture and design can attract some residents. But can it attract enough?

  12. Dale T says:

    To me, the big difference between Remington/Hampden vs. Reservoir Hill/Mount Royal District is race, religion and class. Remington and Hampden were originally homogenous neighborhoods made mostly of white Protestant working-class residents. As with most of Baltimore, Remington and Hampden went into decline through the last half of the 20th century. Though in decline, there was still some “vibrancy” to Remington/Hampden that never completely went away. Remington/Hampden did not deal with the level of turmoil and civil unrest that plagued areas like Reservoir Hill and other neighborhoods in Baltimore.

    On the other hand, Reservoir Hill/Bolton Hill/Mount Royal District originally was a segregated area made of wealthy African-American, wealthy Jewish and wealthy Protestant residents who all rarely interacted with each other. And if they did, sometimes it didn’t turn out well. See “Not in My Neighborhood” by Antero Pietila. Between the city’s housing shortage due to WWII, desegregation, and urban renewal, the Mount Royal area was turned upside down (literally in some cases). When the dust settled from those events, most of the wealthy African-American, wealthy Jewish and wealthy Protestant residents were gone, except for small area now called Bolton Hill where a few preservationists held on.

    In my opinion, the ghosts of segregation haunted this area for decades. It takes time to heal the wounds of injustice. And we still have a long way to go.

    The good news for 2014 is that change has come. Mount Royal Community Development Corporation, http://www.mountroyalcdc.org was formed and formally launched in December 2013. We are dreaming big and thinking broadly. We are learning from our storied history, honoring those who were here before us and making this a place that is fitting for likes of Thurgood Marshall, Gertrude Stein, Woodrow Wilson, Lille Mae Carroll Jackson, Karl Shapiro, Cab Calloway and list goes on and on. It’s time to bring back the Mount Royal District. This time, though, we are doing it together; black, white, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, Christian, Jewish. The Mount Royal District has the opportunity to become one of the most unique and inspiring places in America; an area once tainted with segregation revitalizes and becomes a true example of 21st century diversity.

    If you want to see businesses thrive, vacant homes disappear, crime decrease and quality of life increase, please join me and countless others who, with the help of our city officials and community organizations, can make this dream a reality. We deserve better and no one is stopping us but ourselves.

  13. This article shows Baltimore’s neighborhoods with improving residential market strength. Not surprisingly, the featured city neighborhoods also have some of Baltimore’s most desirable walkable retail nearby

    http://www.baltimoresun.com/business/real-estate/wonk/bal-10-top-upandcoming-places-to-live-in-the-baltimore-area-20140121,0,4214441.photogallery

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