Long-vacant landmark is in line for conversion

Montgomery Ward warehouse to turn into business park

March 16, 2000|By Edward Gunts and Allison Klein | Edward Gunts and Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Baltimore would receive a huge economic boost under an ambitious plan to transform the long-vacant Montgomery Ward catalog building in Southwest Baltimore into one of the region's largest employment centers.

Baltimore developers Sam Himmelrich Jr. and David F. Tufaro head a local group that expects to begin converting the 1925 landmark later this year, creating a $75 million business and technology park with room to house more than 5,000 employees.

The developers say they have a contract to buy the eight-story building at 1000 S. Monroe St. from Montgomery Ward & Co. and plan to redevelop it over the next three to 12 years to create 1.3 million square feet of space -- 2 1/2 times the amount inside the B&O warehouse at Camden Yards.

City officials support the project. M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said he expects it would help revitalization efforts along Washington Boulevard and elsewhere in Southwest Baltimore.

"If you put 5,000 employees in that location, they'll need basic services such as dry cleaners and banks," he said. "It can be a catalyst for many other things."

Although some commercial real estate experts say it's a risky venture -- the site is neither downtown nor on the water, and tenants aren't lined up -- Brodie and the developers are confident.

The proposed Montgomery Park Business Center is "ideally located to attract national and regional users," Himmelrich said. "Its proximity to Interstate 95 provides convenient regional access and visibility. The center is approximately five minutes from the central business district and the Inner Harbor, and it's located in an empowerment zone within Baltimore's planned Camden-Carroll Industrial Park."

`Suburban with a twist'

Easy access to highways and free parking for 3,500 cars make it more like a suburban business park than a downtown office setting where tenants must pay to park in a nearby garage, Himmelrich said.

"Our goal is to attract the kind of users who would normally go to the suburbs," he said. "We have parking. We have tight security. We have high-quality space. We have access to highways and public transit. . . . We're a suburban office project -- with a twist."

Space will lease for $12 to $16 per square foot -- less than the $20 or more per square foot charged for new downtown office space, Himmelrich said. Because the basic structure is in place, he said, office space can be ready in months -- much sooner than a building constructed from scratch.

First Union Bank has agreed to provide acquisition financing and construction financing, according to the developers. Werner Mueller, of the Baltimore office of Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, is the project architect.

The developers are aiming to tap into the strong market for office space in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, especially from "Internet and technology users" and other companies seeking large amounts of upgraded office space. They have developed a strategy for renovating the building in phases and said the pace of construction will depend on how fast tenants emerge.

Himmelrich said his group has assumed control of the 28-acre parcel and expects the sale to be final in the next several weeks. He would not disclose terms of the sale but said the price is in excess of $5 million.

Feeling `out of the loop'

Himmelrich has not met with neighborhood groups to tell them about his plans.

"We feel completely out of the loop," said Mary Lou Kline, president of the Morrell Park Community Association. "We want to know what's going on."

Some residents say they would like to see a bowling alley and a youth facility on the ground level and hotel rooms or offices on the upper floors.

But because Internet companies and other tenants will want security to be tight, Himmelrich said, the leasing plan does not include retail space or other commercial operations catering to the neighborhood. In general, he said, people will not be able to enter the property unless they work there or have business with someone who does.

City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes of the 6th District said he would be happy to see almost anything occupy the building, which has been dormant for 15 years.

"I'm glad it will be office space to generate property taxes," he said.

Brodie says he's optimistic the project can succeed. "There are very few, if any, opportunities like this in the city," he said.

Baltimore's office market may not be as hot as Washington's, but it's "quite warm," Brodie added. "It's good timing."

`Pioneering location'

Some real estate experts caution that the emerging Tide Point business complex in Locust Point may have "soaked up" some tenants that might otherwise have been drawn to Montgomery Park. Others say the Carroll Park location won't necessarily appeal to companies that want to be close to other businesses downtown. In contrast to working with a site downtown or in Towson or Columbia, they say, the developer has to create demand for office space in an area where none exists.

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