35-story tower ready to sprout

Skyscraper: Its prospects may have brightened, but the long-planned building at 1 Light St. remains touched by controversy.

September 26, 1999|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Now or never.

Joe Clarke isn't quite so absolute in his thinking, but he knows that the area's healthy economy and business expansions give him the best chance in a decade to get a long-planned skyscraper at 1 Light St. downtown out of the ground.

The political winds are blowing in his favor, too. Thanks to tax breaks granted in June worth $6.1 million and a $16.1 million city loan to construct parking spaces, Clarke's 35-story One Light Street could be the first significant new office tower added to Baltimore's skyline since 1991.

The president of J. J. Clarke Enterprises Inc. and partner Capital Guidance Corp. of Geneva, Switzerland, also have requested "payment in lieu of taxes" (PILOT) incentives that would shave another $9.5 million in property taxes off the project over the next decade.

If granted by the city's economic development agency and approved by the City Council, the PILOT would make the project even more feasible because it would cut $3 per square foot off rents in the project's 377,000-square-foot office component, the developers contend.

For the 58-year-old Clarke, the proposed $120 million building has taken on towering proportions as well. For instance, One Light Street -- which has yet to begin construction -- is already a project at which he has labored longer than any other single job he has held.

The 980,000-square-foot building also would be the largest single project on which he has ever worked, and, if completed by the end of 2001 as projected, would cap a decade-long endeavor for Clarke.

"I see this in the context of all of downtown," Clarke said. "Everything has its time."

One Light Street also has potentially great significance to the city. Unlike commercial projects that for the past two decades have shifted businesses toward the Inner Harbor, Clarke's skyscraper could provide a critical link between Charles Center and the waterfront, analysts believe.

Moreover, the project -- set to contain a 267-room Embassy Suites hotel, a 660-space parking garage, 15 floors of office space and 18,000 square feet of ground-floor retail -- would help create more than 500 new jobs and generate about $3.3 million a year in amusement, hotel and other taxes. The buildings currently occupying the One Light Street site pay $135,000 per year in property taxes.

"I think this project is more important to the city of Baltimore than any other currently in development or planned in the near future," said Richard P. Manekin, the Manekin Bros. Abeshouse principal whom Clarke has retained to lease One Light Street's office space.

"It combines three needed components and links the Inner Harbor to the traditional central business district."

But the long-awaited project isn't without controversy, and not just because One Light Street is slated to receive millions in city subsidies.

For starters, Clarke and his backers plan to rip down the 81-year-old Southern Hotel, a one-time city landmark that has not had any guests since the Beatles first came to America.

Demolition crews are already working to raze the hotel, one of six buildings bounded by Light, Redwood, Baltimore and Grant streets that will have to come down to make way for One Light Street.

Furthermore, preservationists have complained because Clarke may demolish the existing structures without tenants for the office portion of the project, leaving One Light Street less of a signature building and more of a parking lot.

`Endlessly patient'

But Clarke is accustomed to controversy, and waiting.

"He is endlessly patient," said Wally Orlinsky, former Baltimore City Council president and a close friend of Clarke's. "I think a lot of it has to do with his faith. But one shouldn't mistake that for a lack of steel."

J. Joseph Clarke was born in Baltimore in the closing days of 1940, to the son of an executive with meat packer Swift & Co.

Clarke's father was ambitious and successful, and was promoted often. But promotions meant transfers, so Clarke spent his youth moving from Baltimore to Salisbury to New York to Philadelphia, graduating from a Roman Catholic high school and St. Joseph's College there to pursue teaching.

It was in Philadelphia that he met Mary Pat Hines at a St. Patrick's Day dance in 1956. They were married seven years later, and when Mary Pat -- who would later become president of the Baltimore City Council and a mayoral candidate -- became pregnant with the first of their four children, Clarke abandoned teaching for a promotions job with the local NBC-TV affiliate.

And back to Baltimore

The public relations job eventually led Clarke back to Baltimore, where he worked at sales and promotions at WCBM 680 AM.

Back in his hometown, the Clarkes became active in the New Democratic Club, a liberal political organization that would spawn candidates and officeholders such as former Mayor Clarence Du Burns and former Public Service Commission Chairman-turned-BGE Executive Vice President Frank O. Heintz.

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