East Baltimore’s Johnston Square neighborhood has long been hailed by local government leaders as an example of how the city can turn its surplus of vacant homes around.

Once badly blighted and devoid of new investment, the community saw many of its homes — and its lifeblood — go dark over the years. But over the last decade, vacancy rates there have fallen, homeowners have moved in and neighbors say property values have increased.

Developer ReBUILD Metro is reviving the neighborhood whole blocks at a time, infusing the community with renovated housing, street improvements and public amenities. The effort has required enormous investment — almost $100 million has been raised so far — and partnerships with longtime residents to help see the work through.

It’s a wildly complex endeavor, but the result is a growing and changing community within a few blocks of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Penn Station. On Wednesday, neighborhood leaders, government officials and developers broke ground on an apartment building that will house a new branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library on its ground floor — the system’s first new outpost in 15 years — on what was once 42 vacant lots.

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ReBUILD Metro President Sean Closkey addresses a crowded tent on Wednesday, July 10, 2024, as Johnston Square construction continues behind him. (Hallie Miller)

“It is a hot one today,” Mayor Brandon Scott said during remarks on Wednesday as construction workers made progress on a stretch of blighted homes behind him on East Biddle Street. “But it is not as hot as Johnston Square is right now.”

The tiny East Baltimore neighborhood has been deemed such a success story that the city now hopes to expand the whole-block model to more neighborhoods. Later this summer, Scott’s administration is expected roll out the first-ever tax increment financing package geared toward individual neighborhoods, which allows the city to float bonds to cover public infrastructure costs that can ideally be repaid with future property tax revenues.

It’s part of an ambitious commitment made last year by the mayor, the Greater Baltimore Committee and faith leaders at BUILD — a relative of ReBUILD Metro — to go all-in on the city’s vacant housing epidemic over the next 15 years with as much as $8 billion.

“I want every neighborhood in Baltimore that has endured decades of intentional disinvestment, like what happened here in Johnston Square, to be able to look here to see what’s possible for them,” Scott said. “And what we will do alongside them in the future.”

It won’t be easy.

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ReBUILD President Sean Closkey said Wednesday that delivering in Johnston Square has felt akin, at times, to “juggling chainsaws.” It’s required at least $58 million in financing and investment from state and federal sources, he said, as well as a $2 million pledge from the city’s COVID-19 relief fund and a slew of funding partners to ensure each new asset would be financially sound.

Closkey sees value in the neighborhood TIF, he said, though he cautioned it might be better tested in places like Johnston Square first before fanning out to other, less experienced neighborhoods.

“It makes more sense for a more seasoned set of developments to try [the] pilot,” he said, “because they’ve already figured out the construction issue.”

ReBUILD, which has existed in some form for nearly two decades, has also learned to integrate community voices at every step, Closkey said.

In addition to new green space, a swimming pool and some parking lots, Johnston Square’s facelift has included 30 rehabilitated homes with another 16 currently underway that will be offered at reduced prices for teachers and educators. Another 33 homeowners have received home repairs and upgrades, and ReBUILD also has plans to add housing specifically for working artists.

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The Greenmount Park Apartments — to be the second multifamily building to open in Johnston Square since 2021 — will designate all its 109 units as affordable, or reserved for those earning 80% and below of the area median income. That amounts to a household income scale of up to $95,000 for a four-person household.

Regina Hammond, a veteran Johnston Square homeowner and president and founder of the Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization, said the neighborhood doesn’t have to be an anomaly.

“But make no mistake, it starts with the people in the community,” she said. “Who would have thought we would be just so excited about what has happened?”