Neigh­bor­hood wel­comes the new, fears for the old

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Natalie Sher­man

Lit­tle Italy, nes­tled at the foot of the Jones Falls Ex­press­way close to the In­ner Har­bor, has been a low-slung quar­ter of row­houses, fam­ily res­tau­rants and ravi­oli church sup­pers for as long as any Bal­ti­morean can re­mem­ber.

While the neigh­bor­hood’s nar­row streets and Form­stone fa­cades have en- dured, its denizens have watched war­ily as nearby ware­houses and lum­ber yards mor­phed into con­dos, of­fices and some of the most luxe din­ing in the city.

Now in­vestors hop­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the growth of Har­bor East are plan­ning a crop of new projects in Lit­tle Italy, plac­ing the neigh­bor­hood on the cusp of change and leav­ing peo­ple torn be­tween want­ing im­prove­ments and wor­ry­ing the area will lose its homey charm.

Gio­vanna Blat­ter­mann moved to Lit­tle Italy as a 6-year-old from Si­cily and once served on the city’s zon­ing board. Steeped in pol­i­tics and a vet­eran of re­de­vel­op­ment fights, the 69-year-old, whose fam­ily owns Cafe Gia on High Street, counts herself among the en­clave’s “old guard,” able to spot in an in­stant those who are “neigh­bor­hood” and those who are not.

Blat­ter­mann said she hopes the new

“Things do need to change, but we want to change them in the right di­rec­tion.”

build­ings will smooth the con­nec­tion be­tween Lit­tle Italy and Har­bor East, draw­ing more peo­ple into neigh­bor­hood shops and spurring in­vest­ments in run­down rental prop­er­ties and va­cant spa­ces. “I’m part of the old guard with a new vi­sion, but the vi­sion is ex­tremely guarded,” she said. “As long as we pro­ceed with changes re­spect­fully … I think we can sur­vive.”

The new projects in­clude Work­Shop De­vel­op­ment’s pro­posal for a 16-story, 284-unit apart­ment build­ing on the for­mer site of the Della Notte restau­rant at the corner of Pres­i­dent and Fleet streets.

Next door, at 900 Fleet St., Wash­ing­ton­based Mon­u­ment Realty, which has an­other large apart­ment project un­der­way on Calvert Street, is plan­ning an apart­ment tower with more than 300 units that would climb above a Ver­i­zon switch­ing sta­tion.

At the old Mi­lan restau­rant at 1000 East­ern Ave., rep­re­sen­ta­tives for owner Sean Shah­parast have ap­proached neigh­bors about build­ing 24 apart­ments.

And at 301 Pres­i­dent St., part of a larger park­ing lot that has mul­ti­ple own­ers, real es­tate attorneys are seek­ing zon­ing for build­ings of un­lim­ited height and mul­ti­ple uses, in­clud­ing a ho­tel. (The firm did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.)

“The area be­tween Fleet and East­ern has been a bit of a no-man’s land,” said Doug Sch­midt, a prin­ci­pal at Work­Shop De­vel­op­ment. “Lit­tle Italy is chang­ing, and I think be­ing a seam­less con­nec­tion to Har­bor East would be to its ben­e­fit.”

The in­vest­ments are a sign that Har­bor East is ex­pand­ing, said Joseph Gardella, 38, who opened Joe Ben­ney’s, a fo­cac­cia pizza restau­rant on High Street, about 21⁄ years ago, drawn to the area by child­hood mem­o­ries of over­flow­ing streets and lively chat­ter. He said he knows rents may in­crease, but so will busi­ness — and he be­lieves cus­tomers still want the mom-and­pop shops of Lit­tle Italy.

“There’s some­thing to be a said about a place where you come in and they make you feel like fam­ily,” he said. “I’m not scared. I’m pretty op­ti­mistic be­cause what I see now is new faces in Lit­tle Italy.”

Joe Zu­ram­ski, the pres­i­dent of the tech­nol­ogy firm Reli­aSource, is among the new faces. The busi­ness, for­merly based in Hamp­stead, re­lo­cated to Lit­tle Italy af­ter Zu­ram­ski and part­ners pur­chased the for­mer Vel­le­gia’s restau­rant for about $1 mil­lion in 2014. The firm’s 25 down­town em­ploy­ees now pa­tron­ize res­tau­rants and par­tic­i­pate in lo­cal bocce games, he said.

“The neigh­bor­hood’s just been over­looked for a long time, and I think all of this resur­gence is just fan­tas­tic,” Zu­ram­ski said.

But the news this sum­mer that Bos­ton’s Restau­rant & Sports Bar, a Dal­las-based chain with more than 350 lo­ca­tions in North Amer­ica, would open a fran­chise at Zu­ram­ski’s build­ing in Jan­uary has prompted rumbles from some who say large chains that can af­ford higher rents will di­lute the neigh­bor­hood’s ap­peal.

“Things do need to change, but we want to change them in the right di­rec­tion,” said Mario Pompa, 56, whose grand­fa­ther pur­chased prop­erty on Albe­marle Street from for­mer Mayor Thomas D’Ale­san­dro Jr. in 1939. “If big cor­po­ra­tions and chains come in here, Lit­tle Italy’s gone, and that’s what we don’t want to see.”

Zu­ram­ski said he thinks those con­cerns are overblown. One of his goals was to find a restau­rant that would not com­pete with ex­ist­ing es­tab­lish­ments and would help draw a new, younger crowd into the neigh­bor­hood.

Fel­low in­vestors say they know it is a del­i­cate bal­ance. Though the march of in­vest­ment north from Har­bor East might look in­evitable, it’s a long time com­ing. Plans for some lots have come and gone. In other cases prop­er­ties bought be­fore the real es­tate crash have lan­guished, empty, as peo­ple re­tire and res­tau­rants close.

Find­ing a tenant that matches the neigh­bor­hood and has the fi­nan­cial strength to sur­vive has been harder than ex­pected, de­spite fre­quent in­quiries, said Nor­ris Dod­son, a Wash­ing­ton real es­tate agent who pur­chased the for­mer home of Pa­cific Coast Din­ing with a part­ner in 2006 for $850,000. The restau­rant closed in 2013 and a large leas­ing sign now fills a main win­dow.

Dod­son said he’s not sure how much longer he will hold on to the prop­erty, but he still ex­pects the neigh­bor­hood to take off.

“Our in­tent ini­tially was to grow with the neigh­bor­hood, and we still see the neigh­bor­hood grow­ing,” he said. “We have not found a tenant yet that has the strength that we think the area mer­its.”

Many of the projects are nib­bling around the edges of the neigh­bor­hood, leav­ing its res­i­den­tial core in­tact. Some younger house­holds have started to move in, and for them, the area’s char­ac­ter and long-stand­ing com­mu­nity is part of the ap­peal, said Matt Dad­dio, 34, who bought a home in 2014 and is now pres­i­dent of the Lit­tle Italy Prop­erty Own­ers As­so­ci­a­tion.

“We’re a lot dif­fer­ent from Fed­eral Hill or Fells Point or Can­ton, which are great, but are seen as more tran­sient,” said Dad­dio, who pre­vi­ously rented in Brew­ers Hill, High­land­town and Can­ton. “Cul­tur­ally, it’s an in­ter­est­ing place to live.”

Park­ing is a con­stant con­cern, but Dad­dio said he hopes to see peo­ple spruce up their prop­er­ties.

And Blat­ter­mann said it may be time for the build­ings to rise higher to make sure Lit­tle Italy keeps up.

“It comes a time when you have to let go a lit­tle bit,” she said. “It’s time now. … I’m very op­ti­mistic that Lit­tle Italy, the fa­cade may change a lit­tle bit, but I think the essence of our com­mu­nity will be here.”

If not, Ray Al­caraz, 54, whose mother still lives in Lit­tle Italy in the house she was born in, said he be­lieves peo­ple will fight to keep it that way.

“I hear In­ner Har­bor East is start­ing to get into Lit­tle Italy, and I hope that doesn’t hap­pen be­cause Lit­tle Italy is its own neigh­bor­hood and it’s a proud neigh­bor­hood,” said Al­caraz, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Lit­tle Italy Pro­mo­tion Cen­ter. “I will be stick­ing up for it till the day I die.”

Mario Pompa

KEN­NETH K. LAM/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

Gio­vanna Blat­ter­mann moved to Lit­tle Italy from Si­cily when she was 6 years old. She says she wel­comes change to the neigh­bor­hood, as long as its char­ac­ter is pre­served. “As long as we pro­ceed with changes re­spect­fully … I think we can sur­vive,” she said.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.