Optimism at new high for downtown Baltimore Partnership survey says district is buoyed by investment, jobs

Development

November 13, 1998|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Boosted by a steady increase in investment and a rise in employment, optimism for downtown Baltimore is at an all-time high, according to an 18-month analysis of the area by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

"Downtown Baltimore has reached its pinnacle of economic health for the decade," said Laurie B. Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit business group.

The third annual "State of Downtown Baltimore Report," which is designed to measure the health of the area and identify issues that need attention, used economic indicators such as employment, commercial real estate, investment and corporate views to make its case.

The report's good news about downtown Baltimore includes: A 40 percent increase over 1997 in public and private investment, from $1.3 billion to $1.86 billion.

Employment that rose 2.9 percent over 1997, above the national figure of 2.8 percent and the regional figure of 2.4 percent.

Seventy percent of new downtown jobs resulted from the expansion of existing businesses.

An overall vacancy rate in office buildings that dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent from January 1997 to June 1998, reaching its lowest level this decade.

Areas that are holding downtown back include the uncertainty caused by mergers and acquisitions, the inability to draw the Inner Harbor's strength to the Central Business District and the dearth of parking.

"Parking has kept the growth back, but the city is committed to solving the problem," Schwartz said.

The city has made positive moves toward abating the parking problem, she said, including securing financing for new garages, identifying sites and acquiring them and appointing a full-time parking coordinator in August, she said.

In a 1997 report assessing downtown's parking situation, the Downtown Partnership recommended that the city create 1,500 more parking spaces in the next three to five years. Downtown is 3,600 spaces short, in part because office space was constructed at twice the rate of parking in the past decade, the report said.

The Downtown Partnership expects more than one garage to be under construction in the next 18 months, she said.

The report is especially positive compared to last year's analysis, which included a foreboding forecast for downtown's Class "B" buildings and warning of a dire future for the Central Business District unless it was tended to immediately.

The disparity between the health of the Inner Harbor and health of the business district north of Lombard Street still exists, but there's been some change, Schwartz said.

"There are a number of signs that show growth is under way," she said, referring to the $3.2 million historic renovation of 222 E. Redwood St. by Southwood Holdings LLC.

Milton Rosenbaum, of Hosiery World on Saratoga Street and a member of the Downtown Management Authority Board, said more is happening in downtown Baltimore than has happened in past few decades.

"There's more new development on the way than ever before," Rosenbaum said. "If half of what's on the table comes into fruition, neglected areas like the west side of downtown will come around."

The status of downtown's older, Class "B" buildings has also brightened, the report said. "The trend is, people are looking for unique, historic buildings," said Lisa Raimundo, Downtown Partnership's business and economic development manager.

For example, the once nearly vacant five-story, 94-year-old building at 31 Light St. has been renovated and is fully occupied by Miller Corporate Real Estate Services LLC, a CVS pharmacy and other tenants.

Another desire of the Downtown Partnership is to create a "24-hour city," Schwartz said.

"When you look at cities with successful downtowns -- Boston, Portland, Denver and San Francisco -- they have activity seven days a week, 24 hours a day," she said. "Baltimore has come a long way in capturing that."

New destinations such as the ESPN Zone and Planet Hollywood restaurants at the Inner Harbor have fueled the change. Progress on developing more downtown housing to fill the demand for 1,000 units is also part of the plan.

A dozen downtown buildings are in the pipeline to be converted to housing, the partnership said.

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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