Turning offices into apartments New life for old buildings: Successes in Baltimore, elsewhere should encourage next step.

March 10, 1997

IS THERE A new life for antiquated downtown office buildings? Legg Mason Realty Group, in a study commissioned by Downtown Partnership, thinks so. It suggests that Baltimore set a goal of converting vacant office buildings to 1,000 apartment units in the next five years.

Cities across America -- from New York and Denver to Cleveland

and New Orleans -- are in the midst of converting vacant office buildings to apartments.

This seldom can be done without creative financing or, at the very least, without substantial tax abatements or relaxed zoning requirements.

The nation's hottest conversion market is the Big Apple. As New York's image has improved, "public incentives have been helpful, but with market rents in excess of $2 per square foot and the Manhattan economy growing, developers have found all the incentive they need," the Legg Mason team wrote.

This is clearly the stuff of which Charm City can only dream at this point. Yet some past conversions in Baltimore have been quite successful. Two former warehouses, the Sail Cloth Factory and Inner Harbor Lofts, both close to the University of Maryland at Baltimore campus, seldom have a vacancy. Luxury apartments in the old Southern High School in Federal Hill also are desirable.

Proponents of further conversions would want to see apartments in old office buildings from downtown to Mount Vernon and beyond. In some cases, that may be possible. In other cases, it will not.

A case in point is the aging Munsey building at Calvert and Fayette streets, which the Legg Mason team specifically studied.

The problem is not so much in making the numbers work, but rather the location of the 85-year-old building. While it occupies a central spot, the site may not be attractive enough -- especially without adjoining parking.

Apartment conversion offers some exciting possibilities for downtown Baltimore. But it is not the answer for most of the city's aging office buildings. The Legg Mason report is only a start.

The city now must study what else needs to be done -- from possible tax relief to modifying the building code.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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