Gentrifying industrial Canton

Banker proposes retail-office-hotel complex on water

$100 million to be spent

Huge deal involves land swap, city park, former refinery

April 05, 2001|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Pushing the limits of Baltimore's harbor gentrification, businessman Edwin F. Hale Sr. said yesterday that he plans to develop a $100 million office tower, hotel and retail complex in the heart of Canton's industrial waterfront.

The neighborhood has become a residential and commercial market, and other projects are planned, but this proposal at Boston and Clinton streets would mark the farthest a developer has ventured on the east side of the harbor.

The gritty landscape, complete with hulking oil tanks and the Fort McHenry Tunnel toll plaza, did not put off Hale, chairman of First Mariner Bank, owner of the Baltimore Blast National Professional Soccer League team and head of trucking and transportation companies. All would be headquartered in the new buildings.

"Not doing this is wasting an opportunity," he said.

The plan for "Canton Crossing" is complex, however. It involves a land swap with an industrial neighbor, cleaning up a toxic waste site and changing the city's master plan and zoning, among other regulatory hurdles.

That's on top of a tough financing climate for commercial properties in the city and heavy competition among developers for tenants.

Left to be studied are such things as traffic, design and the squeeze on the city's industrial base, said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

Further, a piece of the city's Canton Waterfront Park that Hale wants for the project is being used by the Department of Public Works and the city's marine police detachment as a maintenance and storage facility.

Michael J. Baker, chief of parks for the city, said officials already rejected selling the land to Hale months ago but would consider letting him use it for a pavilion-style market and public promenade there.

In addition to the market, the project also calls for a 425,000-square-foot, 17-story office tower with 13 penthouse condominiums on the top two floors; a separate First Mariner Bank branch; a 400,000-square-foot building resembling Harborplace with retail at the street level; a 244-slip marina; and a 160-room extended-stay hotel. An existing First Mariner bank building will be incorporated into the office tower.

All of the buildings, which will be red brick with green roofs, are at least two years from opening because of the timing for construction and cleanup of the hazardous waste left behind by a former Exxon refinery and storage facility.

Hale has hired a New Jersey company, Environmental Business Solutions International, to speed up the clean-up process being monitored by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Hale acknowledged that several projects are in the works in the city and not all will be built. Indeed, he said he might scale back his own project if tenants are not secured. He would not disclose the project's lenders or his financial stake.

Timothy J. Cahill, a CB Richard Ellis real estate agent leasing the property, said free parking and a lust for waterfront views would sell the space. Also helping will be office rents in the mid $20s a square foot - several dollars below top-tier space in the central business district.

Hale said he would lean heavily on his business contacts:

Rose Cernak, whose family owns Obrycki's Crab House in Upper Fells Point, said she was considering moving her restaurant to Canton Crossing. She sits on First Mariner's board.

Jim Brennan of Brennan Response Inc., a Hunt Valley advertising company, also said he is considering a move to the site. The company does Hale's advertising.

No leases have been signed on the office or retail space. Hale named Hilton as the possible hotel brand, but no one at the company could comment on the proposal.

Hale also said that he has to build something because he has already agreed to abandon his offices at 1801 S. Clinton St. He said about 600 to 700 employees work in his companies at the site and all the businesses will move to Canton Crossing, except the Peterbilt dealership he now operates behind his building.

His 28-acre site would be part of a swap for land owned by the neighboring Rukert Terminals Corp., a shipping company. Rukert will swap its 18 acres at Boston and Clinton streets, about two-tenths of a mile north and closer to Canton's housing and retail district. Rukert will also pay Hale an undisclosed amount because the lot sizes are not equal. Hale and George F. Nixon Jr., president of Rukert, said the swap grew out of a neighborly squabble. Deicing salt from Rukert's side of the fence was blowing onto the Peterbilt trucks and the cars of bank employees.

The animosity was at a breaking point before one of their lawyers suggested the land swap, they said. Once Hale knew he was getting the new land, he said he wanted to make the most of it.

Hale will break ground in July, when the land deal closes, he said. He will rent his current offices back from Rukert until the new ones are completed.

"The visibility of the Boston Street corner wasn't important to us," said Rukert's Nixon. "This will move the industrial line of demarcation away from the neighborhood. It's a win-win situation."

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