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A university grows in Mount Vernon

Steve Cassard, UB's vice president of facilities management and capital planning
Steve Cassard, UB's vice president of facilities management and capital planning - Steve Ruark
Grab a Resurrection beer at the Brewer’s Art or sushi at XS in Mount Vernon and you’ll see more feet on the street in the Baltimore neighborhood nowadays.
 
You might see even a few more in April as the University of Baltimore opens its LEED-certified law school, the $112 million John and Frances Angelos Law Center. The 190,000 square-foot building will bring 1,300 students, staff and faculty in one location.
 
The law school is just one way in which the University of Baltimore’s growth is changing the look of Mount Vernon. Enrollment has grown from 5,000 students to 7,000 students since it expanded from a two-year commuter school to a four-year university five years ago. That's a 40 percent growth. Now 1,000 students live within two miles of the school.
 
Developers took notice and hundreds of new apartment units are in the works. Retailers also took note. New stores serving both residents and students have been sprouting up and a few more are on the way. But the area still faces a number of challenges, including crime and a block that is slowly recovering from a five-alarm fire.
 
Because UB was traditionally a commuter school, it doesn’t have traditional dorms. Instead, students live in nearby apartments. 
 
“A lot of people prefer not to buy, so renting is very popular for people who want to be mobile,” says Steve Cassard, UB’s vice president.
 
The school's enrollment growth has caught the eye of developers, who are plotting several apartment complexes that cater to students and young professionals. Because credit remains tight, young adults today are renting, not buying. That’s why a lot of developers are putting their money into apartment buildings, says MacKenzie Retail Real Estate Advisor Michael Gioioso.
 
Bethesda developer Potomac Holdings opened the 11-story, 114-unit apartment building called the Varsity August. Cassard says he estimates the complex at 30 W. Biddle St. is more than 80 percent UB student occupied.

The new apartment complexes underway will include the following:
 
• Owings Mills developer the Time Group will debut 171 market-rate apartments in the former Hochschild Kohn warehouse building at 520 Park Ave. It will open spring of 2014;
• Zahlco Properties plans to renovate up to six apartment buildings with 100 units in Mount Vernon by next summer; and,
Developer Patrick Grace is building a four-story apartment complex with 11 units in a former condominium and office building at 505 Park Ave. Construction will begin this spring and wrap up in the fall.
 
Hand-in-hand with the apartment boom has come a number of new restaurants and shops near the university, fueled in part because UB doesn’t have an on-campus food service.
 
Chipotle, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt, and Subway have all moved into the neighborhood over the past 4 years. A Potbelly Sandwich shop with up to 25 employees will open on North Charles March 12. Ooh La La Cupcakery on the 1200 block of North Charles opened in February, and TriBeCa Coffee, a couple of doors down, is expected to open soon.
 
But Mount Vernon’s southern end suffered a blow when a five-alarm fire ripped through the landmark building at 800 North Charles St. three years ago, forcing popular coffee shop Donna’s to close. The building’s landlord Dominic Wiker of the Time Group has signed on Dooby’s Coffee, set to open this month. It’s scouting for more tenants to join the prominent building that sits at Mount Vernon’s entrance.
 
Of course, Mount Vernon has always had a few things going for it: historic architecture, cultural attractions and a nearby light rail and train station.
 
“It’s got proximity to the train station, so people can do the sustainable live and work thing,” Gioioso says. 
 
In fact, in the past five years, Cassard says, there has been a 500 percent increase in the number of UB students who have purchased MTA transit passes.
 
The Baltimore expansion of car-sharing service Zipcar three years ago has also made it easier for students to get around more easily without worrying about parking. (There are dedicated parking spots for Zipcars). There are also some 30 Zip Cars stationed in the neighborhood.
 
The future for Mount Vernon holds both promise and some continuing problems, area residents say.
 
As with any city neighborhood, there’s concern about crime. Mount Vernon recorded just one murder last year, but the killing of Alex Ulrich and shooting of Lawrence Peterson— considered the unofficial neighborhood “mayor” — was so high profile that it was enough to give the neighborhood a big black mark. A North Carolina man has been charged in connection with that case. Car thefts, burglaries and assaults are still common crimes in the area. 
 
In spite of this, University of Baltimore student Ann Zelenka says there are usually a lot of young people on the streets at night. “The vicinity of the school seems safe,” she says, noting that school security is very visible in the blocks around campus. The Midtown Community Benefits District, supported by Mount Vernon and other nearby neighborhoods, provides security and sanitation services to a 150-block area. Off-duty police and citizen volunteers patrol by Segway.
 
But Paul Warren, of the Mount Vernon Belvedere Association, points out, "We’re in Baltimore, so it’s hard to convince people.”
 
Amy Landsman is a former radio and TV journalist who is now a freelance writer in Lutherville. She can be reached at amy@bmoremedia.com. 

All photographs by STEVE RUARK except Paul Warren.

Click photos to read captions.
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