Agency supports expanded museum Visionary art officials want city to sell them old barrel warehouse

September 19, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

The American Visionary Art Museum's plans for a $5 million expansion received backing yesterday from the Baltimore Development Corp., whose board voted to recommend that the city sell a vacant whiskey barrel warehouse at the foot of Federal Hill for the project.

Development corporation members also recommended that the city sell another parcel near Federal Hill to a second group, Covington LLC, for construction of a $4 million, 20-unit townhouse community. The group is headed by "coordinating partner" Jay French of French Development Co. and Paul Littman Jr. of Southway Builders.

The winning teams were selected from six groups that submitted proposals this year to develop the city-owned property bounded by Cross, Covington and Montgomery streets and Key Highway. The 1.57-acre site includes the whiskey barrel warehouse and vacant land south of it.

Both groups will be given exclusive negotiating periods to reach agreement on a sale price; line up financing and refine their plans. Construction would begin once the land sales are approved by the Board of Estimates.

Baltimore Development Corp. President M. Jay Brodie, whose agency oversees economic development for the city, said the museum was judged to be the best candidate to develop the whiskey barrel warehouse because it needs room to expand and none of the other bidders proposed a more compelling use for it.

The museum's plans call for the five-story building to be converted to a "visionary village" containing exhibit space for large-scale environments created by America's finest self-taught visionary artists, student workshop space and a glass-roofed conference center called the "Center for Visionary Thought," providing meeting space for a diverse mix of "visionary thinkers and doers." Swanston & Associates is the architect.

Visionary art is self-taught by individuals working outside the mainstream and often driven by a compulsive desire to create.

The museum, open since 1995, has been designated by Congress as America's "national museum, education and repository center" for visionary art.

Museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger has described the visionary center as a think tank, where innovators from around the world could gather to discuss urban issues and share possible solutions.

Hoffberger said yesterday she was delighted to get the city's support and will seek funding from private and public sources, including a $2.5 million bond issue from the state legislature.

"I think it's really great," she said. "Our whole board will give it the best shot we can. There's a lot of interest in the visionary

center."

Hoffberger said her priority will be to stabilize operations of the existing museum at 800 Key Highway. She said she wants to raise $15 million for the expansion -- $5 million for construction and $10 million for an endowment to cover maintenance and operation.

"Our first priority is to raise a $10 million endowment for the museum so we can remain debt-free," she said.

Brodie said Covington LLC was selected to develop the land south of the warehouse because French "seemed to have quite a complete package, and he seemed more ready to go."

Also, the housing plan, designed by Cho, Wilks and Benn, was "a straightforward scheme that seemed to fit the neighborhood" and had the support of community representatives involved in the selection process, Brodie said.

Besides Littman, French's partners' include Brian Cullen and J. Thomas Dowling, who are experienced developers, and Osborne Payne, a local businessman and civic leader. Each three-story townhouse will have a basement and two-car garage, and prices will start at $207,000.

French said the team hopes to begin construction in the first half next year and complete work within 18 months.

If each house is assessed for $200,000, he said, the development will generate about $80,000 in property taxes annually.

Pub Date: 9/19/97

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