Mayor gains leverage through builder choice

Dividends: O'Malley hopes Bank of America will take on difficult housing revitalization jobs.

January 08, 2000

LIKE Willie Sutton, the glib hold-up man, Mayor Martin O'Malley has figured out that banks are where the money is. Thus, he has selected one of the nation's largest banks as the lead developer of a key downtown revitalization project, rejecting rival proposals from two smaller, local companies.

As long as Kurt L. Schmoke was mayor, one of the smaller partnerships seemed to have a good chance to get the rights to build on a Eutaw Street parcel across from the soon-to-be-renovated Hippodrome Theater.

A&R Development Corp. and Southern Management Corp. had amassed an impressive record with projects that ranged from shopping centers luxury rental apartment high-rises.

Soon after becoming mayor on Dec. 7, Mr. O'Malley decided to go with a proposal submitted by Bank of America and unanimously endorsed by the quasi-governmental Baltimore Development Corp.

There is nothing wrong with Mr. O'Malley's preference. But because it is the new administration's first major economic development decision and entails a pivotal downtown site, the selection warrants examination.

A decades-long deadlock was broken under the Schmoke administration, when realistic planning started in 1997 for the revitalization of the west side, the city's once-thriving retail hub. Increasingly, the area -- between Charles Center and the University of Maryland downtown academic medical campus -- had deteriorated.

The blueprint that emerged consisted of two main elements:

Conversion of the Hippodrome Theater, a boarded-up vaudeville house, into a regional arts center.

Demolition of aging shops at Howard and Lexington streets to accommodate retailers that would attract a wide range of shoppers.

Last year, the city sought proposals for the redevelopment of a Eutaw Street block opposite the Hippodrome site. It was an important step: With Hippodrome renovation money yet to be allocated by the state, the selected private developer would end up building the first major piece of the west side project.

The BDC considered three proposals before Mr. O'Malley awarded the site to Bank of America.

With 30 million customer households and 159,000 employees, Bank of America is truly a powerhouse. It has long been a Baltimore powerbroker through such precursors as Maryland National Bank and NationsBank.

Recently, it has been breaking new ground as a developer. So its proposal to build 334 rental units in an 18-story apartment tower and low-rise buildings near the Hippodrome was a natural.

From an aesthetic viewpoint, the A&R/Southern proposal was superior. The partnership's architects designed a graceful light-colored tower. Low-rise retail buildings on Eutaw Street, with a circular driveway, would have provided an attractive courtyard. The design, proposed by Bank of America, seems positively massive and institutional by comparison.

For Mr. O'Malley, however, much more is at stake than architectural excellence.

By tapping Bank of America, the fledgling administration enlists one of the nation's largest banks in a revitalization mission that goes far beyond the Hippodrome Theater vicinity.

O'Malley administration officials insist that the Eutaw Street decision was made solely on the merits of Bank of America's proposals. That may be so. But the bank's role as a make-or-break player in Baltimore could not be ignored.

During his mayoral campaign, Mr. O'Malley pledged to increase the city's use of Community Reinvestment Act financing as a vehicle to transform Baltimore's troubled neighborhoods.

Bank of America is the industry leader in that field, having made a $350 billion, 10-year commitment nationwide to such community revitalization lending.

In Baltimore, Bank of America provided $5.2 million in financing for such highly visible undertakings as the redevelopment of the former Lexington Terrace public housing complex. It also invested in the conversion of Canton's American Can Co. into a retail and office center.

Those projects are dwarfed, however, by future commitments the bank has in mind. Consider:

It has pledged $100 million as seed money for the revitalization of the west side.

It is mulling over financial participation in Tide Point, a $36-million plan by Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse to turn the old Procter & Gamble Co. soap manufacturing plant into a high-tech office park. The project would extend the transformation of the Inner Harbor to a declining industrial area by stretching Key Highway into Locust Point

Perhaps more important than any of that, though, Bank of America possesses the key to the fate of Harlem Park, one of Baltimore's worst residential neighborhoods. If the bank turns that key, Harlem Park may have a future; if it throws that key away, the whole neighborhood of mostly vacant and vandalized houses may die.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.