City-run 'Tower Suites' shuts down

URBAN LANDSCAPE

September 08, 1994|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Staff Writer

A bold experiment to rejuvenate Baltimore's Howard Street corridor has come to an end.

"Tower Suites," a city-run office center that operated for more than a decade on the top three floors of the Hecht Co. building at 118 N. Howard St., shut its doors after the final tenant moved out last month.

The closing marks the first time that the eight-story building has been entirely vacant since it was constructed in 1925. The Hecht store closed in January 1989, joining an exodus that included branches of Hochschild, Kohn & Co., Stewart's and Hutzler's.

Michael Seipp, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said Tower Suites was forced to close because the city's 12-year lease expired. He said he is hoping to meet soon with the property owners to discuss the future of the 280,000-square-foot building, one of the largest and most prominent in the Howard Street corridor.

"One of the things we'd like to explore is the idea of the city marketing it for them, particularly to nonprofit organizations and others who want less expensive office space but still want to be downtown," he said.

Once the flagship of the Hecht Co. chain, the building is owned by Great Northeast Land and Machinery Inc. of McLean, Va., a partnership of two development firms, Petrie Dierman Kughn and Partners and Ted Georgelas & Sons.

In 1991 that group offered to sell or lease the building to the city for use as its new police headquarters -- and initially succeeded in its pitch. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced in 1992 that the Hecht site had been tentatively selected over two dozen others. "Locating the new police headquarters on Howard Street is a symbolic and tangible investment in the Howard Street corridor," he said then.

But seven months later, the mayor announced that the city would expand its headquarters on Fayette Street, in part because cost estimates for renovating the Hecht building were higher than projected.

Tower Suites was conceived by then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer as a way to keep Hecht's open downtown while also providing affordable office space.

In the early 1980s, afraid that Hecht's would abandon Howard and Lexington streets, the Schaefer administration persuaded the company to "downsize" the Howard Street store by shrinking it from eight floors of merchandise to five. As an incentive, the city agreed to lease the leftover space from Hecht's for use as offices and a conference center.

Hecht's parent, the May Co. of St. Louis, agreed to lease 81,500 square feet of space to the city for 12 years starting in July 1982. The plan helped keep Hecht's downtown until the end of the decade.

Initially, Tower Suites drew hundreds to Howard Street. Its tenants included Baltimore's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, the White Lung Association, Maryland's Infants and Toddlers program, and Baltimore City Fair Inc.

The plan began to unravel when Hecht's closed its store. The next year the May Co. sold the building to the current owners.

Meanwhile, rent increases made Tower Suites less attractive to prospective tenants. In 1982, the city rented the three floors for $556,868 per year, or less than $7 per square foot. By 1994, the rent rose to $970,000 a year, or $12.10 per square foot. By comparison, rates for space in surrounding buildings dropped to $9 or $10 per square foot during the recession.

Petrie Dierman representatives could not be reached, but Mr. Seipp said the expiration of the city's lease for Tower Suites means that the owners are free to look at a wider range of options for recycling the vacant building.

Lutherville tour

Eight historic homes and four churches will open their doors to visitors when the Lutherville Community Association sponsors its 1994 Tour of Historic Lutherville from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 1. Tickets will be available in advance or on the day of the tour at the Linen Loft in Ridgeley Plaza and Watson's Garden Center on York Road.

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