Dormant West St. begins to blossom Low interest rates, traffic circle work spur business boom

June 22, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Here's a line not heard for some time in Annapolis: Business is booming on West Street.

Helped by a healthy economy, low interest rates and the start of construction of an $8 million traffic circle, demand for West Street space is soaring, Annapolis officials and developers say.

West Street office buildings, once desperate for tenants, are about 95 percent filled. A $4.5 million office building is under construction, and other businesses are expanding. Plans are also in the works for an Irish pub and European-style inn to be established soon in the corridor.

"I believe we'll see a pretty West Street in the next two or three years," said Lou Hyatt, a longtime developer in Annapolis. "Urban renewal and shopping centers really destroyed the area years ago, but I think the momentum created by the city's investment in the traffic circle and the psychology of it coming in has generated a lot of interest.

"It's been a long time coming, but I have always felt that West Street would make a comeback."

Perhaps it's too early to say that the business district is experiencing a rebirth, but city observers say it is the most activity the street has seen in years.

In the past 20 years, the section of West Street from Church Circle to Taylor Avenue saw a proliferation of empty stores and vacant lots and hardly any construction.

Twelve years ago, Annapolis officials began talking about revitalizing the corridor and drafted an Inner West Street Revitalization plan. But that did little to improve the area immediately.

But the business community gave sporadic signs of support. For example, Loews Annapolis Hotel moved into a former hotel site in the 100 block in 1990, and West Garrett Place was built nearby as office space by Hyatt and a partner nine years ago.

Much of the problem was getting investors and city officials to understand that West Street was the last land that could be developed for new businesses. Anne Arundel County's Parole area is an increasing threat that attracts new businesses and lures old ones out of the city.

Busy Main Street offers limited room for expansion downtown. ++ For businesses desiring to be near local and state government offices, the State House, the new Circuit Courthouse on Franklin Street and the downtown historic district, West Street is the next closest location.

Prime real estate

It is prime real estate, developers said, and city officials have just begun treating it as such.

Groundbreaking on the long-promised traffic circle at West Street and Taylor Avenue took place last month. With that comes a promise of $8 million to rebrick sidewalks, place utilities underground and repave the seven-block section known as Inner West Street.

Much effort has also gone into improving surrounding areas. The nearby Clay Street Community is undergoing its own revitalization.

City, county and state funding has been pumped into these projects.

The idea, city officials said, is to designate West Street as the new gateway to the historic district. Apparently, developers and business owners are buying into it.

"Since the traffic circle construction started, I've gotten a lot more calls than I used to," said Susan K. Zellers, the city economic development director.

"People see we're serious about developing West Street, so they want to move their business here or build here. There's a lot of interest now, and that's good news."

Traffic circle's role

Not everyone believes the traffic circle is the catalyst for all of West Street's rebirth.

"I'm not sure what kind of a role the traffic circle played in all this," said David Loughlin of Loughlin Management, who manages the 60 West Building. "I would think in the short term, it discourages businesses and visitors into the area because of traffic backups and construction.

"But once complete, if Inner West Street is developed in the way the city has in mind, then it will be an attraction," Loughlin said.

"After all, if you want to be downtown, West Street is the most logical place left to go."

That might explain why architect Theodore Joyce bought 35 West St. last week -- a building formerly owned by Farmers National Land Corp -- for his Irish pub project.

Hyatt, who represents Joyce, said the new Annapolis resident is interested in renovating the building to accommodate the existing businesses there, which include The Pony Espresso and West Cleaners.

Joyce is also negotiating a contract for the old Goodwill building at 176 West St. which has been empty for about two years, and plans to convert it into a European-style inn.

Hyatt said that 15 West St., the former First Federal Bank site, has been sold to an Annapolis investor for offices.

Buildings nearly full

Almost filled to capacity are the old Middleton Gallery, Charles Schwab & Co. building, 60 West Building and West Garrett Place -- which has never been full since its construction.

A short distance away, Herrmann-Dunn Real Estate is putting up a $4.5 million office building across from Loews Annapolis Hotel. The building is set to open for its first tenant by December.

Across the street next to the hotel are two buildings that legal firms are renovating and expanding.

Zellers said the city has also received calls from investors and lTC developers about the 11.3-acre Menke-Phipps site near Taylor Avenue, which has often been studied as a possible location for a city conference center.

T. Phillip Dunn, whose company is constructing the new office building, said of the activity on West Street, "I think it's been coming for a long time.

"The city has really been hyping West Street up for the last three or four years. Now they're showing their commitment to it through the circle, and the county and state is pushing for revitalization as well.

"A rising tide lifts all boats, and we're certainly experiencing a rising tide," Dunn said.

Pub Date: 6/22/98

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