City land deal gains

Bank of America OKs purchase price for west-side site

Centerpoint project

Board of Estimates approval expected, but Pratt has doubts

October 03, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

In another sign of progress on downtown Baltimore's west side, Bank of America has agreed on a $6 million purchase price for the city-owned site it plans to develop as a major residential and retail complex.

City officials and others say the bank's $60.8 million Centerpoint project, with its 370 apartments and numerous shops and restaurants, would infuse the struggling Howard Street area with new energy and act as a linchpin for future projects.

The deal seems likely to win approval from the Board of Estimates, which is scheduled to take up the matter today.

But Comptroller Joan M. Pratt suggests that the city, which spent more than $12 million buying the properties on the square-block site through condemnation, is being too generous to the bank and its Atlanta development partner.

Even in documents to be presented to the board, city development officials say the $6 million purchase price could be reduced by $1.1 million for necessary environmental cleanup and demolition.

Pratt said her analysis shows the city would not see the resulting $4.9 million for 11 years, under a complex cash-flow sharing agreement.

"The big question is, what is the true cost to the city?" she asked yesterday.

If she does vote against the financing scheme, Pratt may be a minority of one on the Board of Estimates. Mayor Martin O'Malley controls three of the five votes, and the fifth belongs to City Council President Sheila Dixon, who said she supports the deal, despite early misgivings.

"Everybody at this point sees the bigger picture in moving forward and that ultimately the city will benefit," Dixon said. She pointed out that no other developers are clamoring to invest $60 million on the west side.

Centerpoint would take up an entire block bounded by North Howard, North Eutaw, West Fayette and West Baltimore streets. While it would preserve nine older buildings, its key feature would be a 17-story residential tower on Howard Street.

"It's critical," said Robert C. Embry Jr., a former Baltimore housing commissioner who is president of the Abell Foundation. Without Centerpoint, he said, other area projects would not go forward.

One of those projects is the proposed $56 million restoration of the Hippodrome Theater directly across Eutaw from the Centerpoint property. The France-Merrick Foundation is poised to contribute $5 million to help turn the theater into a venue for Broadway-style shows - but only if Centerpoint moves ahead.

Embry said that although he is not familiar with details of the proposed land transfer, the city has sold property for less than it paid in past redevelopment efforts such as the Inner Harbor.

Bank of America also has asked for a break on property taxes, a common arrangement known as a "payment in lieu of taxes." The City Council is considering that request.

Maria E. Johnson, a Bank of America vice president who represented the company in lengthy negotiations, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The bank's commitment is evidence that the area is rebounding after a decades-long slump, said Sharon Grinnell, west-side coordinator at the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

"Having the bank stepping forward with its partner is a very strong signal and should send a very clear message to other private players that this is an area worth investing in," said Grinnell, who is also the BDC's chief operating officer.

According to the city, Centerpoint would be home to 472 residents- most of them new to Baltimore - and create 190 jobs.

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