A Charles Center fit to lead a revival

Downtown: Major projects stirring north from harbor, but key is resolving parking, other issues.

Agenda '99

Goals for the new year

January 11, 1999

THIS PROMISES to be the year when Baltimore's two symbols of downtown renewal -- the Inner Harbor and Charles Center -- meld. As development activity spreads, the underutilized blocks separating those two areas keep shrinking.

Consider:

In the latest development, First National Bank of Maryland is acquiring a cluster of aging low-rise buildings at Lombard and Charles streets. Adjoining the bank's executive offices and just north of the Legg Mason headquarters, the parcels are ripe for redevelopment.

The vacant German-medieval-style Hansa Haus at Charles and Redwood streets is soon to be renovated into offices for a brokerage.

Several redevelopment deals are being hatched near the corner of Light and Baltimore streets. The most ambitious involves razing the old Southern Hotel to build a $120 million, 35-story hotel and office complex.

For this work to proceed, two legal issues must be resolved.

One is confusion over a November ruling by Circuit Judge Richard T. Rombro that negated $75 million in tax breaks for the Wyndham hotel project. The ruling seemed to ban such city inducements altogether. Unless this matter is quickly clarified, major projects needing public participation could stall.

Second, Charles Center covenants should be extended when they expire in March. Otherwise, developers could conceivably demolish underperforming low-rise buildings and replace them with skyscrapers without a long-term plan.

The covenants specify building heights and uses. They were part of the urban renewal plan that shaped the 33-acre Charles Center office campus as it rose nearly 40 years ago. The city wants to extend the guidelines for two years to buy time to update the master plan, protect owners and spur development in keeping with the complex's character.

Charles Center is poised for a major face lift. Already and without much fanfare, some $50 million is being poured into sprucing up existing structures.

"It's certainly the biggest targeted investment in Charles Center since it began," says M. J. Brodie, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's chief economic development aide.

The biggest spender is the federal government, which is in the midst of a $30 million rehabilitation of the Fallon Building to house offices of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Peter G. Angelos, the litigation lawyer and Orioles owner, is forking out $13 million to renovate One Charles Center, the office tower designed by the legendary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mr. Angelos bought the 24-story building two years ago. After a Burger King franchise moves out in March, the structure's Fayette Street base will get a fancier look. Retail space will be added and an upscale restaurant is planned for the building's atrium.

On the opposite corner, the remnants of the Hamburger's building are to be turned into a downtown center for Johns Hopkins University at a cost of $6.5 million. An architect's sketch shows a handsome edifice with huge windows, a prominent clock and an electronic ticker updating the news, a throwback to an age when the corner was one of Baltimore's busiest. (Mr. Angelos has already demolished an unattractive overhang that created a visual barrier between Charles Center and the financial district.)

The planned repaving and landscaping of Charles Street will add to the area's transformation. Period lighting will be installed, and sidewalks of red brick will extend from the Inner Harbor to Mount Vernon.

While welcome, such cosmetic improvements can accomplish only so much. As in much of the downtown, improved parking is key.

Parking is in such short supply that property owners are devising creative solutions. At its 12-story Sun Life Building, Grebow Properties is converting basement mailrooms into 70 additional spaces. At One Charles Center, Mr. Angelos plans to carve 60 parking spaces out of the building's ground-level interior. He also wants to turn Center Plaza into temporary parking. Trading a public plaza for a parking lot is an imperfect solution, but Mr. Angelos is correct that luring tenants to a renewed Charles Center, instead of a suburban corporate campus, depends on their ability to park.

If the potential of Charles Center and the Inner Harbor to further lift downtown is to be realized, more safe and convenient parking must be created. That should be a top agenda item for the city in 1999.

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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