Photo by Ethan McLeod

Kim Lane likens Pigtown’s three blocks along Washington Boulevard to a barbell.

The weights down in the 700 block, closer to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, are the local shops that have served as the commercial core of the just-barely Southwest Baltimore neighborhood. Up in the 900 block, past a stretch of mostly row homes with addresses in the 800s, are more weights—newer ones—comprising newer businesses and organizations, including the Mobtown Ballroom, the year-old Suspended Brewing Company, the Hopkins-operated SPARC women’s health center and, soon, a three-story culinary workforce training outpost for the nonprofit Paul’s Place.

“Our work now is how to connect the two [sides], how to get people walking down here, flowing back and forth,” says Lane, executive director of Pigtown Main Street.

Her hope is that the latest weight added to the barbell, the Bath House Square Apartments, can do just that. After serving in turns as a nonprofit headquarters, a city-run community action center and Baltimore’s most enduring public bathhouse for about six decades, 900 Washington Blvd. has been renovated into a seven-unit apartment building, attached to a new gourmet coffee shop in an old fire station.

Working with masonry union Bricklayers Local 1 MD, VA and DC as an equity partner for the last several years, Baltimore-based SAA | EVI Development led the $2 million renovation of the nationally registered historic bath house building, as well as the adjacent fire station that will soon house a Milk and Honey Market. The Reinvestment Fund, which has offices in the SAA | EVI-developed Chesapeake House in Station North, helped finance construction on the project.

The developer acquired the property from the Baltimore Development Corporation “as-is” in 2016 for $100,000.

Beyond contributing financing, Bricklayers Local 1 has also agreed to launch a new construction job-training program for young people. The bathhouse project served as a pilot site, and the plan is to build a training facility in the city mirroring the union’s existing one in Prince George’s County.

The newly unveiled apartments sport high ceilings, large windows, some with original architectural details like wooden beams, and painted-over brick. They also feature modern trappings like granite counters and new appliances—and price tags to reflect it.

Mark Madeoy of Results 1 Realty, who gave us a tour of the apartments, says they’re “a little bit more upscale than most of the units around here.” The cheapest one-bedroom costs $1,175 per month, and the lone two-bedroom goes for $1,700. Madeoy said they lowered prices after getting feedback that they were initially “a little too high.”

But he’s confident they’ll lease out—one is already rented—particularly with Pigtown’s central location near downtown, harbor-side neighborhoods, ballparks and more.

“The area is improving and getting better all the time. The crime’s going down,” says Madeoy, who bought a house on Pigtown’s main stretch three years ago.

He nods to an arguably racist prejudice people have about Pigtown’s geography. “I’ve been here eight years and there’s always been an image, like Oh, if you’re over on the other side of MLK, that’s a bad area. It’s always had this little stigma. And it’s going away.”

Windows overlooking Washington Boulevard from on of the renovated apartments. Photo by Ethan McLeod.

Ernst Valery, of SAA | EVI, says he was drawn to Pigtown in part because of what he calls its “diversity and inclusion.” Census figures, cited in the city health department’s 2017 profile of the neighborhood, estimated a little over half over Pigtown and Washington Village’s some 5,300 residents are black. About 40 percent are white, and the remainder is split between Asian, Hispanic and other groups.

“If you go to a community association meeting, you already see everyone there,” Valery says. “More of Baltimore needs to be like that.”

The developer’s past projects include the Chesapeake House in Station North, as well as the Nelson Kohl apartments, which included financing from “The Wire” star Wendell Pierce, and where studios start at $1,250 a month. Valery—who co-owns Milk and Honey Market with his wife, Dana—hopes to build up Pigtown’s residential housing stock and amenities similarly to Station North: “We think that Pigtown has that opportunity.”

Walking from the old bath house toward the 700 block, Lane recalls when she worked in the building roughly two decades ago for the Washington Village/Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council, when the organization was based there. “At that time, nearly everything in the blocks that we’re walking towards was vacant and boarded.”

The tide appeared to be changing when investors moved in on Pigtown during the early 2000s, she says. “Then the housing crash hit, and that was horrible.”

After more than a decade now, Pigtown is “rebounding, and the goal is balance,” she says. That includes vetting developers who come in to build and renovate, and working with organizations that facilitate rehabs of vacant properties. But it also means change, including drawing potential businesses–and their customers–as well as residents from around the city.

“We’re really working for people from other parts of the city to come support our destination places,” she says. “At the same time, you do have to increase homeownership and increase the amount of people living here and support the local businesses.”

Ethan McLeod is a freelance reporter in Baltimore. He previously worked as an editor for the Baltimore Business Journal and Baltimore Fishbowl. His work has appeared in Bloomberg CityLab, Next City and...