Baltimore’s next task, it was clear, would be to use these old buildings as assets towards achieving the residential policies it had previously set. In an unexpected way, the lessons learned from the development of Cold Spring as a community and its suitability for middle class families would play a role in the city’s future programs. In 1973 Baltimore introduced its Homestead Program in which the city would arrange to sell vacant, habitable structures to new residents for as little as one dollar. A homestead applicant chosen by lottery, would agree to make the necessary investments in order to satisfy certain renovation required in order to make the houses livable. The applicant would also agree to inhabit the house within 6 months of purchase for a minimum occupancy of eighteen months. When two years from the date of sale had passed, and following the city’s inspection of the renovations, the resident was handed title to the property, and the property was officially entered back onto the city’s tax rolls. As one of several redevelopment areas chosen, the Otterbein neighborhood was selected in 1974, and signaled a rebirth for this community. The timing for this neighborhood was perfect.
Despite the plans for the expressway construction, Otterbein’s unique location and the efforts of preservationists persuaded city officials to push the expressway plan further west of the neighborhood to save it. Still, the 200 remaining buildings that had survived the vandalism and general neglect in the years of the clearance threat, were seen by many to be too disparate to form a coherent neighborhood on their own. Developers lobbied the city to tear them down in order to redevelop the area from the ground up. The city’s planners, however, decided against it. Under a unique master plan it was determined instead that the neighborhood would be renewed, not only by restoring and incorporating the historic, older buildings, but also by extending their scale and architectural qualities into new construction for the development of a new, family-oriented neighborhood with contemporary amenities. In the summer of 1975, 104 of the habitable old houses in the planning area — in varying degrees of disrepair — were sold by the city to homestead applicants for exactly $1.00. Following this, the first new construction was begun in 1978 and continued through 1986. Included in the construction were 100 new townhouses, a high rise, and condominiums. Eventually, the neighborhood saw the restoration of 110 additional row houses, the renovation of an old school, a church, and a several industrial building to include 38 additional residential units. The Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond relocated from another part of the city to the neighborhood’s western boundary.
There its low-lying mass, formed an expansive and attractive visual buffer for the neighborhood from the new expressway which was, in fact, built on the other side. Harbor Way West, a high rise of 56 condominiums was constructed in 1985 north of Barre Street on the northern boundary. Two separate high-rises for the elderly were built along the edges of the neighborhood, along the eastern boundary of Light Street which, in turn, abuts the waterfront recreational area.. Today, Otterbein is very much alive. The amenities which have grown up around through Baltimore’s renewal projects, its designation in 1980 as an historic district ensuring that the design standards of its redevelopment would be kept, as well as its proximity to the Harbor and Downtown, make it a popular residential choice for Baltimore families, downtown workers, and graduate students of the nearby University of Maryland Medical and Law schools. Adjacent communities — some privately gentrified, others, Homestead areas themselves — have helped to anchor the neighborhood’s success in a larger residential context. It has also lured Washington, D.C. commuters who are attracted to living in Baltimore’s comparatively lowercost neighborhoods, with easy access to “neighboring” D.C., 40 miles to the south, via expressways and the commuter rail service abutting Otterbein. But a very significant attribute of the neighborhood is contained in the efforts made by its planners to ensure that it would be a viable, practical alternative for middle class family life in the city. By capitalizing on its positive urban features and adding in features of both mainstream quality and contemporary utility, Otterbein’s residential environment offers a unique suburban hybrid blended with the aesthetics of a nineteenth-century streetscape. Perhaps due to lessons from the Coldspring project combined with the desire to preserve Otterbein’s historic elements, the general characteristics of its redevelopment are those of its dual qualities: of old and new, of urban and suburban. As such, parts of the neighborhood are modern and exhibit new, retrofitted construction. Simultaneously, its nineteenth century pattern of density, its high-quality of public realm spaces and streetscape, and its location adjacent to the city’s downtown, make it undeniably urban, as well.
Several studies by consulting firms helped to forge the city’s redevelopment guidelines. But the discussions which created the masterplan and guided the development process, are most illustrative of the planning goals. From the outset, there were two very different types of residential construction which needed to be addressed. First, the new construction of townhouses would come under a set of prescribed controls regulating height, scale, materials, detailing, and density to conform to the overall character of older buildings. Height limits, for example, were set at three stories to maintain the neighborhood’s nineteenth century skyline. Similarly, roof pitch, building frontage width, and fenestration patterns designed for new buildings were meant to suggest — not to imitate – the qualities of the original, predominantly Federal and Greek Revival style townhouses. Aside fromthese external, “in-view-from the street” aesthetics, the layout (front/ rear) and internal features of the new houses were unrestrained to accommodate contemporary living.
A greater challenge, however, was to hybridize the historic townhouses for modern living given the constraints of earlier construction and architecture. One solution — and, as mentioned, one that was applied equally to the new buildings — lays in the dual design strategy. The fronts and backs of buildings would become substantially different, both in aesthetic and functional purposes. Like the townhouses of Coldspring, the fronts of all Otterbein houses — both old and new — were to be urban in appearance, and would relate to the streetscape and public spaces, as well as to their context with neighboring buildings. The backs of the houses, however, were to be clean-lined, modern and functional, lending the relaxed and more informal quality of suburban backyards. The informal, suburbanized backyard would serve two purposes in Otterbein. The first was to allow homeowners the opportunity to express their own living style, and to provide practical outdoor convenience, since this opportunity would not be as freely available in the front yard of the house. The second idea was to encourage renovators of older houses to “open up” the older houses, to increased light and air in order for maximizing livability. This would serve to attract homeowners — both current and in the future as the housing stock changed hands — who might otherwise feel stifled by a total historicism approach. It was, of course, also based on the practical realization that Otterbein, with its newer construction and older buildings from various historical periods, would seek less to be a comprehensive historic district, as it would to be a quality setting with traditional motifs. Rather than using a set of strict guidelines for the transformation of old houses, the planners decided on a combination which included an information strategy.