Project holds hope for neighborhoods

Montgomery Park plan gains shops, restaurants

Developers expand Baltimore office plan

September 09, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Plans for turning the hulking Montgomery Ward building in Southwest Baltimore into new office space have mushroomed to surrounding properties, raising hopes that the huge project will rejuvenate a depressed area of town.

After initially announcing their plans for the 28-acre Ward site, Sam Himmelrich Jr. and David F. Tufaro quietly acquired by lease or purchase about 30 more acres, some with buildings. Now, in addition to turning the former catalog house into the largest office space in Baltimore, the developers might add restaurants, a big store such as a Target or Home Depot, and an extended-stay hotel.

"I don't think you can overstate how important this is to the city," said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency. "It anchors a piece of perfectly situated land that, for some reason, has been vacant and underutilized."

The Montgomery Park project is so large that it dwarfs other celebrated office developments in the city, such as Locust Point's Tide Point and Canton's American Can Company. The latter were makeovers of abandoned industrial buildings, credited with helping to spark neighborhood revitalization and real estate booms in those areas.

"It will be a big, new gussied-up building in a disinvested community," said Jack Danna, the city's "Main Street" development program coordinator for Pigtown and Morrell Park. "Will it save it? It won't. But it will lead the way in making the neighborhoods around it more stable, and it will do wonders for that part of Washington Boulevard."

Pigtown is the seventh-most concentrated area of urban poverty in the United States, with 48 percent of children living below the poverty level, according to census data noted by the Washington Village Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council. Morrell Park, while not as dire, is sapped by vacant homes and drug and petty crime.

Montgomery Park's first tenant, the Maryland Department of the Environment, has signed a 10-year lease and plans to move 900 employees into the Ward building by next year. No other tenants have been signed, but the developers expect 3,500 people to work there eventually.

The expanded master plan will require City Council approval, which could be granted this fall.

Restaurant, drugstore

The developers' additional properties include the long-vacant Silver Spoon diner on Washington Boulevard, which they hope will become a fast-food restaurant.

They have also bought the adjacent lot on the southeast corner of the boulevard and Monroe Street, which has an old White Tower hamburger stand. They say they may preserve the hamburger stand, but their priority is turning that property into a drugstore.

Just east of the warehouse, the master plan calls for a day care enter, with an 18,000-square-foot play area, which is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

"We want a successful development for people who work there and live in the neighborhood," said Tufaro, explaining why they acquired more property. "We don't want a run-down environment."

They envision revamping an existing 120-foot underground walkway to connect the future parking lot and main office building. The passage was used by Montgomery Ward employees traveling between the catalog house and an adjacent warehouse obtained by Tufaro and Himmelrich.

"The tunnel was a big attraction for us," Tufaro said.

Hope of attracting residents

Mary Lou Kline, president of the Morrell Park Community Association, said the project could be a boost for her community. She hopes some of the thousands of people who expect to work in the building will move into her neighborhood.

"There's the chance people will want to live near their work," Kline said. "There's a lot of `For Sale' signs. and we certainly have some empty spaces to fill."

Pigtown activists and Del. Brian K. McHale of the 47th District say they are working with Gov. Parris N. Glendening to bring the Live Near Your Work program to the 900 employees of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"It would be a great way to add to stabilization to home ownership in Washington Village and Morrell Park," McHale said. "They could use an influx of home ownership there. That area has a lot of potential. You can get a great deal on decent housing in that area."

The program offers $3,000 in public and private funds to those who buy houses close to their work.

"If new people come in," Kline said, "we might be able to chase the bad guys out."

Fear of creating `cocoon'

While Kline is optimistic about the new office complex, and likes that the developers want to restore the 1925 Art Deco building to its original look, she still has concerns.

It worries her that plans call for the complex to be gated and guarded, and that employees might use the food court, dry cleaner and fitness center in the office building instead of venturing into the neighborhoods.

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