They call him "The Octopus of Mount Vernon," but the nickname doesn't bother University of Baltimore President H. Mebane Turner.
In 22 years as president, Turner has extended the school's tentacles throughout the Mount Vernon-Belvedere area, buying 20 properties to expand classroom and office space for the undergraduate and profession institution.
The latest purchase is the city block at Maryland Avenue and West Biddle Street where Pat Hayes Buick operates. Turner scooped up the property in late May for $4.25 million and plans to use the site for parking and student law clinics when the dealership moves, merges or closes in the fall.
The next UB real estate venture may be the Albert Gunther hardware building, across the street from the old car dealership. Gunther recently filed for bankruptcy.
The property was just appraised by state general services officials at Turner's direction and is rated by a UB official as "more than a casual interest." The university leases a 110-space parking garage next to the Gunther building from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.
If Turner's vision turns into reality, the result will be a UB that doubles its enrollment to 10,000 students, including many who will ride to class on the new light-rail line and others who live in university-owned apartments in the neighborhood.
With UB at its center, Turner says, the transitional neighborhoods in the area will become a solid northern gateway to center city and UB will be known as a model urban campus, much like the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"We will have a major economic and physical effect on the city and the area. It is beneficial to the life of the city for us to grow," Turner said. "We think it's going to be hard to find a school to have an impact like we would have."
A turning point in Turner's master plan will be construction of the five-story, $22 million Robert G. Merrick School of Business, for which ground is scheduled to be broken in the fall.
Located at the southwest corner of Mount Royal Avenue and Charles Street, the brick and atrium building is expected to enhance UB's presence, add 26 classrooms and a conference center, and accommodate a projected enrollment increase of 1,300 students.
The business school is to be on land occupied by a faculty parking lot. Early plans called for the structure to stretch west on Mount Royal Avenue after Turner purchased the adjacent Odorite janitorial supply building in 1989.
But that real estate venture fizzled when Gov. William Donald Schaefer ordered Turner not to raze the Odorite structure because of objections from the Maryland Historical Society and some members of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Improvement Association who argued that the structure is a historic landmark.
Now, Turner's original plan to be "flexible" with the Odorite parcel by razing the building and constructing a parking lot and a shady park have been shelved.
Turner concedes he will have to be "creative" to make use of a building that he bought for $700,000 and which one of his staff members describes as "uninhabitable."
Nevertheless, Turner presses on.
His biggest hurdle is buying or renting about 2,500 parking spaces for UB's 5,700 students. So far, he has located only 1,000 spaces, but he has ordered a study for a possible parking garage at the old Buick dealership site.
Parking was one of the reasons that Turner purchased a Goodyear tire store on west Mount Royal Avenue in 1989. The need for office space was the reason the university and its foundation bought five large rowhouses on Charles and St. Paul streets. The university also owns 14 acres of property near the Lyric Opera House, a city landmark controlled by the UB foundation.
All of Turner's acquisitions are outlined in colored markers on a 3-by-6-foot area map that sits across from the desk in his office.
State budget cuts have put expansion plans at most colleges on hold. But with the blessing of the University of Maryland's Board of Regents, Turner is prepared to expand further once state revenues pick up and he can hire faculty and staff again.
He plans to market the university as a convenient stop on the new light-rail line.
He also wants to enchance the university's undergraduate liberal arts curriculum.
But his legacy will be left on property deeds.
"We are going to try to put the package on the periphery of the city and then in a few years, you'll have a core university ," he said. :If the good times of the state return, the growth of the UB in this area will bring life and vitality to it.