Sylvan Learning skips to new `urban campus'

Move: Education services company that left the suburbs for the city is moving to new headquarters in Inner Harbor East.

March 17, 2001|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Nearly five years after Sylvan Learning Systems Inc. fled suburbia for Baltimore, the company is moving again - this time just across the street.

As of Monday, Sylvan's headquarters will be officially moved to a shiny new building a block from its old one. The move signals an effort to consolidate the company's headquarters into one office and create an "urban campus" with its e-learning businesses on a corner of Baltimore's Inner Harbor East.

"The buildings will have very different kinds of amenities, which will encourage our employees to go from building to building and interact with one another," said John K. Hoey, Sylvan's senior vice president of corporate services. "And there will be more of a feeling of `I don't just work in this building, I work on the Sylvan campus.' "

Sylvan, the education services company, moved its headquarters from Columbia to Baltimore's waterfront in November 1996, bucking the trend of companies heading for office parks in the suburbs.

A handful of e-learning companies backed by Sylvan Ventures - including iLearning Inc., a Web-based training company, and eSylvan, which does online tutoring for students - have since cropped up on a corner of Fleet Street in Baltimore.

Sylvan's new headquarters is across the street from them. The building, developed by H&S Properties Development Corp., spans about one city block. Sylvan will occupy four of the floors, and Fidelity & Guaranty Life Insurance Co. will fill two. There is also a two-floor garage and retail space on the ground floor.

"We really took a very different approach to designing this space," Hoey said.

The walls of Sylvan's new offices are painted in myriad colors, from mustard yellow to bright red. Two of the floors will have small patios that came with a price tag of about $50,000 each. Each floor also has a play area, which will have games like Foosball and Ping-Pong.

"This is going to be a basketball court right here," Fran Anderson, Sylvan's director of construction, said yesterday as he stood in front of a baby-blue wall in the new building.

Also, the executive offices are toward the interior of each floor so the view of the city can be shared by all. (There are, of course, some exceptions to this. Chief Executive Officer Douglas L. Becker has a purple-carpeted window office with a sweeping view of the harbor, but he apparently had to be talked into it.)

With its move to the new building, Sylvan can consolidate its local offices. It had outgrown its old space, and workers were spilling into offices in Fells Point and Hampden. The company even rented apartments in the Inner Harbor East for people to work from.

The move to the new building is also part of an agreement to separate from Prometric Inc., which Sylvan sold last year to Thomson Corp. for $775 million.

Prometric, a computer-based testing company, is on two floors in the waterfront building it used to share with Sylvan and in an office building on Fleet Street. The company will consolidate its operations in the waterfront building.

"This is going to be our world corporate headquarters so we are going to be putting some signage on the building that will reflect Prometric," said Michael White, the company's director of employee services. "So, we're looking for some visibility."

Hoey said Sylvan's new building could house the company for the next three years if the company grew at a pace of 15 percent annually. In addition to that space and two e-learning buildings across the street, Sylvan also has leased an old furniture warehouse that sits diagonally from the headquarters and has talked about the possibility of redeveloping the H&S Bakery distribution center across the street from that.

If it occupied all of those buildings, Sylvan would have space on all four corners of the intersection of Fleet Street and South Central Avenue in Inner Harbor East.

"You could call it new urbanism. Its just unambiguously good for the companies, unambiguously good for the city," said Richard Clinch, program manager for the Maryland Business Research Partnership, a University of Baltimore think tank.

Clinch said there's a segment of the real estate market that wants bars and restaurants and barbershops close to their work. "Many high-tech firms ... have young workers who want to be near amenities," he said, "and these urban campuses are a great place to do it."

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