Leaders want developers to fill in the gaps

Downtown projects leave blocks of blacktop and holes

`Parking-lot syndrome'

Tighter rules sought to stop premature razing of structures

March 24, 2002|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

From their high-rise windows overlooking downtown, some business leaders can see two dormant construction sites along Light Street - gaps in the heart of the city's traditional financial district.

The sites, on opposite sides of Redwood Street, are stalled developments. Shortly, one could become a parking lot - one more in a city where plans for hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of office towers, hotels and shops fizzled into blocks of blacktop during two recessions since the late 1980s.

A city official terms it "parking-lot syndrome."

Some people are calling for tightening requirements that do little to stop developers from demolishing old, sometimes historic buildings in high-profile swaths of downtown before they are prepared to build anew.

One of them is Charles S. Fitzgerald, a banker whose office overlooks the Light Street demolition sites.

"It sends the wrong message to anyone visiting the city from the outside to see what appears to be abandoned construction sites in the heart of downtown," he said. "It sends a bad message to people who work downtown, too."

Developers say economic factors doomed or delayed their projects after demolition began, costing them a lot more than the view. There are taxes, maybe a mortgage, and lost revenue, on top of fees for architects, engineers and permits.

Preservationists argue that the city's skyline is being altered on nothing but a pledge of development.

Developers do not have to show that they have financing and other commitments when they apply for a city demolition permit.

City Council President Sheila Dixon said officials often see extensive plans from developers who want design approval and public subsidies, but not always before demolition. "We don't give any PILOTs [payment in lieu of taxes subsidies] until we see their finances," she said.

Although demolition applications say buildings may not be torn down for parking lots, developers need only complete permit paperwork and get business licenses to operate such lots temporarily, said David Tanner, executive director of municipal zoning appeals and former zoning administrator.

City inspectors make sure the sites are paved properly, and City Council approval is needed if a lot is to continue operating after 18 months.

Officials and others have pointed to at least six downtown sites where buildings were demolished - as far back as the 1980s - for projects that did not materialize during the heady economic expansions. Projects are still planned for some of the sites - two gaping foundations and four parking lots totaling more than 900 spaces.

Among others, the sites were home to McCormick & Co. and the Southern Hotel on Light Street, the Merchants and Miners and Sun Life buildings on Redwood Street, the News American newspaper building on Pratt Street and the Tower Building on Baltimore Street.

The McCormick and News American sites, cleared in the late 1980s, are the oldest of the parking lots.

J. Joseph Clarke, who heads a group that demolished the Southern Hotel for a 35-story office tower, hotel and garage project two years ago, is considering turning the site into a parking lot or a garage capable of supporting an office tower.

"It costs us money to do nothing, but that's the condition we find ourselves in," Clarke said. "I'd like to get on with the entire project, but there are a couple of things standing in the way. One is the state of the market."

Clarke said that before demolition began in late 1999, he went through the lengthy process of obtaining approvals and permits. Then the market dried up.

Donald J. Urgo & Associates, developer of a 176-room Marriott Residence Inn across Redwood Street from Clarke's project, says construction will begin in May or June - some 15 or 16 months after demolition was completed after a court battle with preservationists.

When the site was finally cleared in February 2001, the firm was so confident that it obtained a building permit. But construction had not begun when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 savaged the travel industry and hotel financing. Now, a package of tax breaks is winding its way though the City Council, and the company says it will move forward.

The tax-break package "will close the gap in our financing," said Kevin Urgo, vice president of development.

"We're following through on our promise to the city and to ourselves."

At Lockwood Place, site of a demolished Baltimore City Community College building, developers have begun building a parking garage but have put off building shops and offices.

The News American site, where plans for offices and a hotel have evaporated, is earmarked for upscale apartments. Construction could begin in the second half of the year, according to the New York-based developer, Schulweis Realty Inc.

The cyclical real estate market is the villain in most cases, said M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

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