Tale of two downtowns: Contrast: While Inner Harbor office occupancy thrives, business district lags behind.

December 10, 1997

THE GOOD NEWS is that Inner Harbor office buildings have recovered from recession. The bad news is that this success has not yet spread to the older buildings in the central business district. Or as Laurie Schwartz of Downtown Partnership puts it, "Pratt Street may have the high buildings and high occupancy, but it's the financial district with its high vacancies that's casting the shadow on downtown's future."This dichotomy underscores the fragility of the downtown real estate market.

While the IBM skyscraper at 100 East Pratt Street sold recently for a record $137 million, many older buildings farther away from the harbor are languishing. The test will come in the next several months when recession-era, cut-rate leases expire. If tenants are not willing to renew their leases at much higher rents, where will they go? Will they stay in the business district or move to the suburbs?

This problem troubles boosters like Ms. Schwartz, whose organization addresses the situation in a "State of Downtown Baltimore Report." "We should capitalize on the recent growth and investment in the Inner Harbor, drawing it northward into our central business district," she told a membership meeting.

Spreading the Inner Harbor's success northward is likely to be a difficult and drawn-out process. But it can be done, building by building. Just a few examples:

A year ago, sensitive owners restored a 93-year-old building at the corner of Light and Lombard streets and revitalized it with new tenants. Mickey Miller Jr. and Ira Miller are now repeating their success at 22 Light Street, previously the home of the United Way of Central Maryland. New tenants include a bank, an optician, a custom tailor and offices.

For its first Baltimore branch, Chevy Chase Bank recently restored Alex. Brown & Sons' 1901 landmark building at Calvert and Baltimore streets, which has a marvelous Tiffany dome ceiling. Rite Aid is currently renovating an adjoining structure.

Those face-lifts enhance downtown blocks. They are badly needed confidence builders in a market which still regards the less glamorous parts of downtown with great apprehension.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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