Schmoke sees vacant offices as housing He proposes recycling aging buildings into apartments, condos

'Lemonade' from 'lemons'

Business group told cost high, but plan would aid downtown

January 30, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Edward Gunts | JoAnna Daemmrich and Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is looking for ways to turn Baltimore's office buildings of the past into housing of the future. In an effort to reduce the large inventory of vacant downtown buildings, Mr. Schf the highest office vacancy rates in the nation -- produced in large part by the exodus of small and medium businesses to the suburbs or to newer office towers downtown. The overwhelming majority of vacant spaces are in aging "Class B" buildings, which typically do not have parking and have not been able to compete with the crop of buildings that were opened in the 1980s.

Converting long-vacant office structures will not be easy. Besides the high cost of rehabilitation and the resulting high rents, developers are likely to turn to city government for help with parking, improved safety, changes in building codes and other financial and technical assistance.

At a breakfast of business leaders, Mr. Schmoke said creating residences out of old offices, while costly, would fit with overall downtown revitalization efforts. Office-to-residential renovations are being tried in other cities, including Washington and New York.

"I think it can be done, and I know many other people share my optimism," Mr. Schmoke told the crowd of nearly 300 at the monthly forum of the Downtown Partnership, a business

advocacy group.

"We have gone around and around on this," he continued.

"There are serious problems because of the high cost of renovation or even new construction, but we just think there is a good opportunity for it."

He touted a variety of downtown attractions under way, from the newly opened Visionary Arts Museum on Key High-way to the $30 million children's museum that is to open in the old Fishmarket by early 1998.

Downtown Baltimore is on the threshold of "better times," he said, adding, "The bottom line is we're looking at 1996 as a year of implementation, not a year of study."

Mr. Schmoke also briefly touched on initiatives popular with the business community, from the revamping of the Baltimore Development Corp., the economic development agency, to plans to install 200 video cameras to monitor street crime.

Despite the progress, downtown boosters continue to confront one all-too-visible sign of decline: the vacant office buildings.

The commercial real-estate market in downtown Baltimore has been much slower to recover after the recession than the surrounding suburbs.

Recent studies show that 24.1 percent of office space in "Class B" buildings is vacant.

Some older buildings are completely vacant above street level. They include the Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette streets and the former Mercantile Bank branch at Calvert and Redwood streets.

On Howard Street, where many office buildings also stand empty, the city plans to convert a block into housing for artists. Mr. Schmoke said yesterday that he would choose a development team within the next month.

Three development teams have bid on the project, which would create about 50 apartments and shops in buildings in the 400 block of N. Howard St.

BDC president M. J. "Jay" Brodie said his agency would work with the Downtown Partnership and the city's housing agency to assess the feasibility of office-to-residential renovations and identify potential buildings.

The city may be able to help owners convert office buildings by providing financial assistance or parking, he said.

"There are buildings of substance," he said.

"Some are quite beautiful, architecturally. Some aren't. But they're worth looking at as: 'We have some lemons. Let's figure how to make lemonade.' "

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