Invested in an Idea

Annapolis developer T. Conrad Monts has an ambitious idea: spend $70 million to redevelop three properties around Penn Station and create a cultural and commercial hub


March 18, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

When they announced plans last fall to sell three surplus city properties near Pennsylvania Station, Baltimore housing officials said they were looking for developers who could work with the community and infuse life into an area that has been overlooked in the past.

They may have found much more than that.

T. Conrad Monts, an African-American builder who never has worked in Baltimore before, has offered to buy all three properties and turn them into a mini-city of offices, apartments and retail space.

Monts, whose firm is based in Annapolis, proposes spending more than $70 million - nearly three times the investment projected by the next highest bidder. It is by far the most ambitious and intriguing proposal generated to date for Baltimore's newly named Station North Arts and Entertainment District, which received state endorsement last month. City officials received a wide range of ideas in response to their request for bids, and are expected to announce their decisions this spring.

Not since financier David Murdock offered to transform six parcels near Lexington Market in the early 1980s has one developer sought so many city parcels at once. But Monts thinks it can't work any other way.

"You can't do it piecemeal," he said. "One building doesn't revitalize the neighborhood. ... You need a critical mass."

His critical mass has three components, according to the proposal he submitted to the city housing department last month:

First, he wants to tear down a contemporary addition to the old Mildred Monroe elementary school at 1600 Guilford Ave. and build a 700-car garage with 162 apartments above - at a cost of about $30 million. He would recycle the original 1890 school building, a mirror of the School 33 Arts Center in south Baltimore, for use by neighborhood groups.

Second, on a parking lot in the 1700 block of North Calvert Street, he would construct a 50,000 square foot office building and a 48-unit apartment building - at a cost of $9.9 million.

Third, and perhaps most ambitious, he wants to turn the old Railway Express building at 1501 St. Paul St. into a $29.9 million, 173,000 square-foot office center. Rather than stay within the shell of the old Postal Station, he wants to add two floors of office space on top - giving prospective tenants sweeping views up and down the Jones Falls Valley.

Baltimore's largest architecture firm, RTKL Associates, has come up with a plan that would restore the exterior of the historic structure, which dates from 1929, create three levels of office space inside, and then add two upper levels that would have a contemporary look. Lit up at night, the new floors could be a "tasteful lantern" on top of the older building, says RTKL vice president Ray Peloquin.

"Conrad's desire from the beginning was to treat the building as an important historic jewel in the city," he said. "We love the idea of a juxtaposition of contemporary vs. historic."

Official designation

The Station North Arts and Entertainment District is bounded roughly by Howard Street, North and Greenmount avenues, and the Jones Falls Expressway. The designation, which became official last month, provides a state income tax break for qualified artists working and living in the area and a 10-year tax break for owners of commercial buildings renovated for arts uses.

Monts is one of several developers who met the housing department's Feb. 1 deadline for proposals from groups interested in redeveloping the properties near Pennsylvania Station, and he's the only one to submit a proposal for more than one property.

Other proposals for the Railway Express building include an $11 million plan for an arts center called Creative Works, and a $23 million plan to build 60 loft residences and 184 parking spaces.

The loft housing plan, designed by David Shull, called for one level of apartments to be constructed on the roof of the Railway Express building and others within its shell. Many of the residences would cost more than $300,000, according to the proposal from Thomas and Maria Rafailides and Perry P. Savoy.

Monts said he thinks offices are the best use for the Railway Express building, and that it's also the best way to stimulate development in the area. He believes that many companies will be attracted by the building's proximity to the train station, the Jones Falls Expressway, the Mount Royal cultural district and nearby colleges and universities.

The proposal wouldn't preclude arts-related projects taking shape elsewhere within the 100-acre Station North district, he noted. But first, "what you need is economic vitality," he said. "You need people who have a reason for being there, and the way to do it is jobs."

Although Monts is a newcomer to development in Baltimore, he is no neophyte to the field. Born 60 years ago in Brooklyn, N.Y., he has a business degree from Pace College (now Pace University) in New York and has been developing real estate since 1973, including large projects in New York and Washington.

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