Baltimore’s Otterbein offers a different conceptualization of the new central city neighborhood, for two reasons. One is that it was never an empty site or the location of an obsolete industrial land-use. Another is that it represents the adaptive reuse of older city elements existing on site and used as assets to guide new in-fill construction and contemporary features of a newer masterplanned community. The location of Otterbein, in fact, had supported a residential neighborhood since the earliest years of the city itself –albeit in various degrees of habitability. The Old Otterbein Church, for which the neighborhood is named, was built in 1758 and still stands on Conway Street at the neighborhood’s northern edge. Spanning an area of roughly four blocks by six blocks, the district lies one block west of the city’s Inner Harbor basin and two blocks south of the central business district. Inside the neighborhood, more than 100 eighteenth and nineteenth century homes stand in unified streetscapes with almost 200 newly constructed townhouses. An additional 300 units in high-rise buildings buffer the area along its eastern edges. The central location and commanding view of the waterfront which make it a desirable location for middle class families today, held a similar appeal for the neighborhood’s earliest residents two centuries before.
Starting with Baltimore’s first settlement in 1729, many of the merchants, traders, bankers and sea captains, whose livelihoods depended on proximity to the bustling port built their homes in this area. Yet, far from being exclusive to this mercantile class, the families of the tradesmen, freed black workers, and craftsmen lived here as well. The city in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was segregated less by race and economics than by occupation, and the clean-lined homes of Otterbein reflect, in their varied sizes and quality, the diversity that existed in the community. For example. on the same streets as the brick mansions of sea captains, were situated the simpler, eight-foot wide dwellings and workshops of craftsmen. Later additions to the neighborhood such as the Marburg Tobacco factory (1887), attest to the industrial advantages the neighborhood was to later possess, situated as it was between the wharves, and the B&O Railroad’s Camden Station (1857) to the west. 1 Like other city neighborhoods, however, Otterbein went into decline after World War II. By the 1960s, it showed only faint vestiges of this prosperous past. Newer, fashionable neighborhoods had long before drawn the city’s middle class away, along the central Charles Street corridor, and ever outward and northward from the waterfront. The neighborhood was vacated in many places and greatly deteriorated. Two centuries of residential migration and succession, the expansion of manufacturing plants into its boundaries, and later, the general exodus of population and jobs from the city as a whole, had all taken their toll on the neighborhood. Most damaging, perhaps, was the 1960s Urban Renewal plan to raze and clear the neighborhood for the construction of an expressway into downtown Baltimore. This resulted in the final stages of divestment and abandonment. B
y the 1970s, Otterbein had become a no-man’s land of derelict, windowless houses surrounded by vacant lots and chain link fencing. Except for the rats and the homeless squatters who took up residence there, the neighborhood was thoroughly dead. At the same time, however, downtown Baltimore was undergoing large-scale renewal. Its Charles Center project had been successful in jumpstarting a downtown building boom. Nearly 33 acres along the Inner Harbor basin had been cleared for redevelopment, and the final plans for a shopping and entertainment complex were being reviewed (the future Harborplace). Downtown, it would later be understood, was transforming itself for the coming service economy despite the decaying neighborhood which surrounded it. The perennial issue of retaining middle class families remained as important as ever. The steady growth of the suburban counties was amplified by the heralded opening of the new town of Columbia, less than 15 miles from downtown. In response to these social pressures, the city had begun trying a variety of approaches to prevent the further flight of its middle class. One solution was the development of its own new-town, in-town: a publicprivate venture to be called Coldspring which broke ground in 1971.
Located on a 375-acre tract of land in the rugged northwest ravines of the city, the ambitious planning for Coldspring was intended to offer contemporary housing for 3,500 to 4,000 families using competitive advantages of both suburban and urban elements in its design. Moshe Safdie, the Israeli architect known for his “Habitat” buildings, was hired to design a cost-efficient cluster of 124 townhouses connected by a series of decks. On the interior sides of each cluster facing the deck, Safdie gave the houses a traditional urban appearance to serve as an elevated streetscape, while on the opposite side, patios, decks, and small yards opened to a “suburban” rusticity of the surrounding terrain. Parking was hidden under the decks, and landscaped walkways connecting each house to the deck with planters and benches were provided to encourage neighborhood socialization on the simulated “city street”.2 Shortly after completion of the first phase, the Coldspring project was celebrated as a success: full occupancy, a waiting list for new units, and reports from city officials that the demographics of the new residents were, indeed, those of a racially-integrated, professional middle class. 3 The additional development of 300 units, however, never came to pass, due to the high construction costs for the site, and the difficulties in keeping the housing prices economically attractive to erstwhile suburban homebuyers. As if looking for alternative methods, the city turned its sights, instead, to the central areas surrounding downtown, where neighborhoods of worn but solidly-built housing were slipping into further deterioration and abandonment.