Housing borrows some lofty ideals

Ten stories of loft apartments are proposed for the Lexington Market area -- but they'd be brand-new, not a renovation.


July 09, 2000|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

For more than 20 years, local architects and developers have been converting Baltimore's old loft buildings to apartments. Now a local design firm is developing plans to create apartments that have the look and feel of converted lofts -- but within an entirely new structure. Call them faux lofts. Or residences in the Neo-Loft style.

The Lofts at Lexington is the name of a $30 million, 238-unit apartment building that Hord Coplan Macht of Baltimore is designing for Pennrose Properties Inc. of Philadelphia. The 14-story building would rise on top of the Lexington Market's three-story parking garage at the southwest corner of Paca and Saratoga streets. The project marks the first time locally that an architect and developer have proposed a new building that evokes older industrial structures recycled as housing.

It won't necessarily appeal to loft-living purists because it lacks one ingredient essential for living in old industrial buildings -- oldness. But if the designers and developers can find a way to take other popular features of loft living and put them in a contemporary structure with a convenient location, they may be on to something.

As more and more of the city's genuine loft buildings are recycled for housing or offices (or torn down for various reasons), this hybrid approach could be a clever way to increase the city's housing stock without destroying the character of the surrounding area -- particularly on Baltimore's West Side.

Preliminary plans by Hord Coplan Macht call for the Lofts at Lexington to have 10 stories of apartments above four levels of parking -- all on top of the existing Lexington Market garage.

The apartment portion will be U-shaped, with the open end of the U facing south and framing a courtyard and swimming pool. The exterior looks like a loft building as channeled by Arquitectonica -- the Miami-based design firm responsible for some of the more jazzy condo towers in that city -- with projecting balconies and sculptural penthouses. One reference to old-fashioned lofts is a rooftop water tower.

The apartments will have features that are commonly found in converted loft buildings in Baltimore's Loft District near Camden Yards or along the Canton waterfront: high ceilings, big windows, open floor plans and exposed lights and ductwork. But they'll also have amenities available in new apartments, such as microwave ovens, central air, high-speed Internet access and washer and dryer hookups.

Principal-in-charge Ed Hord said the design team isn't trying to re-create industrial buildings for nostalgia's sake, and he resists the "faux loft" appellation. The goal, he said, was to identify features that people like about loft living and incorporate them in this new structure, as a way to differentiate Pennrose's project from others.

Hord, who is working with project designer Lee Driskill, says the developers want their apartments to appeal to the same breed of young professionals who like working in former industrial buildings such as Tide Point, the American Can complex and the Bagby Building. A similar approach, he says, has worked in Dallas, Denver and other cities where downtown living is popular and recyclable buildings are in short supply.

"We're not trying to make it look like an old warehouse," Hord explained. "We're taking the aesthetic of the loft and applying it to a new model for housing."

Does this mean Baltimore has run out of loft buildings to recycle? Hardly. There are still gems such as the Abell building on Eutaw, the former YMCA on Charles and the Planned Parenthood building on Howard Street. For developers who want to be part of Baltimore's renaissance but don't control such properties, however, the Pennrose approach is worth exploring.

Pennrose was named to develop the Lexington Market property last spring, after it responded to a formal request for proposals. The company has been granted six months to finish its plans for the project, which must be approved by the Lexington Market board and others before construction can begin.

There is a local precedent, in a sense. In the 1980s, Ayers Saint Gross designed a public garage on Lombard Street that looks like a loft building. In that case, the architects wanted their building to be compatible with surrounding structures, including the loft buildings to the west. Cars seem to like it.

Compatibility is not so much an issue around Paca and Saratoga streets. The immediate area includes buildings representing many different styles and eras. There is no one context that designers should plug into -- or would necessarily want to.

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