Piper to leave city for suburbs Largest law firm in Md. is moving to Mount Washington

'A blow for downtown'

September 05, 1998|By Kevin L. McQuaid and Sean Somerville | Kevin L. McQuaid and Sean Somerville,SUN STAFF

The caption with a photograph accompanying yesterday's story about Piper & Marbury's decision to move its offices to Mount Washington incorrectily identified the chief operating officer of the law firm. His is Jeffrey F. Liss.

The Sun regrets the error.

In a striking and symbolic setback to the city's economic development efforts, the state's largest law firm intends to leave its longtime offices downtown and establish a new headquarters in Mount Washington.

Piper & Marbury's decision to relocate 500 attorneys and support staff to a building in the former USF&G Corp.'s 69-acre campus represents one of the biggest defections from downtown in the past several years, after a string of recent economic development victories involving Alex. Brown Inc., Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Legg Mason Inc. and T. Rowe Price Associates Inc.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Piper & Marbury officials said the shift from 36 S. Charles St. to the glass, four-story building just over the city line in Baltimore County, which will take place in April 2000, wasn't based on its location.

"This was not a geographical decision, this was not a vote against the city," said Francis B. Burch Jr., the firm's chairman and a city resident. "It was just the best vote on our screen."

Piper & Marbury, with more than 350 attorneys and offices in Washington, New York and Philadelphia in addition to Baltimore, represents some of the area's largest companies, including Rouse Co., McCormick & Co., BGE and First Maryland Bancorp.

The decision comes just three months after the firm's plans to relocate to a new high-rise on land owned by the Baltimore City Community College downtown were thwarted. The college's trustees rejected a proposal by a Connecticut developer, who would have constructed a 12-story tower for the firm as part of a $120 million project.

"We're certainly sorry that things didn't work out for Piper, but the process that we had and the criteria that the trustees of the college established resulted in [Philadelphia developer] Kravco Co. getting the opportunity to study the feasibility of their project," said Barbara Hopkins, a BCCC spokeswoman.

Reasons for choice

Burch said the firm chose the former Fidelity & Guaranty Life Insurance building because it is a signature building in a good location with on-site parking, contains large floors, and made economic sense.

"The quality of this building and the amenities it offers can't be relocated anywhere," Burch said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, an attorney with Piper & Marbury before he ran for Baltimore state's attorney in 1982, was cited by Burch for his "heroic" efforts to keep the firm in the city. The mayor said he was "disappointed" that Piper & Marbury and the college couldn't reach an agreement.

"I felt that [the BCCC land at 500 E. Pratt St.] was a superb location that would have yielded great benefits to both the firm and the college," Schmoke said through a spokesman.

Piper & Marbury's decision to relocate from 36 S. Charles St., where it is spread over 15 floors and has been principally located since 1978, touched a nerve in the business community.

"This comes as a shocking disappointment," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc., a quasi-public economic development group. "I see it as a significant blow for downtown."

Schwartz added the downtown area will suffer an intangible loss.

"Firms with the stature and the position of Piper & Marbury belong downtown, not on a remote campus in an otherwise residential community," Schwartz said. "The growth that has occurred has come largely from existing companies, and it's going to create a real challenge to make up for these jobs leaving town."

Perplexed reaction

Howard G. Goldberg, former managing partner of Smith, Somerville and Case LLC, who started his own firm downtown, was perplexed by the news.

"Why a major firm would want to remove themselves from the economic hub of the region is beyond me," he said. "If they're going to be in Mount Washington, they might as well be in Harrisburg."

Piper & Marbury officials said they intend to maintain a presence downtown after the move to Mount Washington, which is being made possible by a "restacking" of employees at the campus by the St. Paul Cos., which acquired USF&G in January for $3.5 billion.

But, in contrast to the 165,000 square feet of office space with expansion options that Piper & Marbury will lease from St. Paul, Burch said he expects the firm to commit to roughly 10,000 square feet in the city's central business district.

"It's too bad, because whenever someone, especially an important law firm leaves, it reduces the attractiveness of downtown as a place to do business and makes it less attractive for remaining there," said Anirban Basu, an economist at the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University.

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