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Baltimore St. project may rev up in '08

November 04, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

"There's been enough talk, there've been enough studies. Now it's time to implement something."

The speaker? Thomas "Rocky" Wade, a consultant hired by the City of Hagerstown to implement a good idea drawn up by the Greater Hagerstown Committee's Urban Renewal Forum. The time? June 2003.

GHC's brainstorm: Encourage people with disposable income to become homeowners in downtown Hagerstown.

Doing that would mean fixing up existing properties or finding some space to build new ones.

The developers told GHC they didn't want to do redevelopment piecemeal. They wanted a block or an entire neighborhood to work on.

With Wade's help, the city set up the Hagerstown Neighborhood Development Partnership.

In January 2005, HNDP bought three acres on Baltimore Street that was then home to the Massey Ford Body Shop. The following month, Richard W. Phoebus Sr., president of HNDP, said work on 30 town homes there could start in the next 12 to 18 months.

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But then the housing market began to flounder. The body shop has since closed, an old home on the property is heading toward tumble-down status and no ground has been broken.

That could change by next spring, when Orchard Development of Ellicott City, Md., should begin demolition work, according to Sharon Disque, HNDP's executive director.

It can't happen sooner for a couple of reasons, Disque said.

The first is that the developer is changing the plans, to keep prices in the $200,000-plus range.

Instead of townhouses that are 20 feet wide, the planned width of each is being reduced to 16 feet, Disque said.

That will make it possible to put 66 units on the three-acre site and increase the amount of green space by 12 percent, Disque said.

As planned now, the town houses will be three-story homes, with a one-car garage and optional den on the first floor, she said. On the second floor will be a kitchen, a combination livingroom/dining room and a half-bath.

The third floor will have two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

When I note that all that stair-climbing probably wouldn't attract retirees, Disque said that wasn't ever the target market.

Disque said the developer looked at similar units in the Hyattsville, Md. Arts District and in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, then got an architect to come up with similar designs.

However, since the plan is being changed, it will have to go at least some portions of the approval process again.

"They've already gone in for a preliminary meeting and in a month or so they should submit a new plan," Disque said.

L. Scott Armiger, the vice president of Orchard Development, couldn't be reached for comment on Friday.

Phoebus said Thursday he was confident the project would go forward because Orchard had made "a significant cash investment in the deal. The developer has convinced us that they're committed."

Phoebus said that even though the project has been slow in getting started because of a downturn in the housing market, he believes it has already made a difference in the neighborhood.

"I believe because of our announcement some time ago, the old school house (once the Antietam Street School) has been turned into condominiums. People saw that the neighborhood was being redeveloped."

If Phoebus is correct, then the pace of renovation should increase when the project - to be called Potomac Square - gets under way.

We have to hope so. The city has seen a lot of recent interest from developers and operators of new businesses. To support these, downtown needs residents with some disposable income, as opposed to those who are living month to month with no extra cash for entertainment or gift-shop goods.

Property owners have an attachment to their dwellings that rented don't have. I know; I lived in three different apartments in the city before buying a home near Smithsburg.

When renters find that there are problems in the neighborhood - noise, drug dealing or worse - they start counting the months left to go on the lease.

When homeowners encounter the same thing, they raise heck about it, if only because they've got an investment to protect.

When Wade talked to me in 2003, neither of us believed it would take four years to get this project going. But nobody was betting on a housing slump back then, either. Let's hope that the next column on this subject I write will be to announce the groundbreaking for Potomac Square.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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