City OKs developer's proposal for Railway Express building

Community leaders denounce plan as no help to Penn Station area

May 30, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The old Railway Express building at 1501 St. Paul St. in Baltimore would be reborn as a new home for the advertising firm Carton Donofrio Partners and artist studios, under a proposal approved by the city.

But leaders of a community group that supported a rival bid for the city-owned property said the project will do "nothing" for the struggling area around Pennsylvania Station.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano chose the $11 million proposal after a review panel unanimously recommended it over two others. "There was no hemming and hawing," said JoAnn Copes, assistant commissioner for development.

The deal is not done. The city and developers must negotiate the sale of the 1929 building, valued at $2 million. Carton Donofrio needs a lease and wants financial incentives from the city to stay in Baltimore.

Copes listed several reasons the city picked the proposal: seasoned developers, a tie-in to the area's nascent arts and entertainment district, a commitment to historic rehabilitation, parking and an identified tenant weighing a move to the suburbs.

Developer Stanley Keyser said he would rename the two-story building - used by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City - Creative Works. He termed it a midtown "jewel" ideal for a creative reuse. The top floor will retain 18-foot ceilings, with the first floor turned into parking and a mezzanine level added above for office space.

Keyser is managing member of Railway Express LLC, a partnership that includes the Banks Group, led by Kenneth Banks; Lambda Development, led by contractor Ronald Lipscomb and former Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge; and architect Ed Hord.

Charles L. Smith, vice president of the Charles North Community Association, panned the city's selection. "Anger, outrage, you name it," he said, describing his reaction.

Smith's group backed a proposal submitted by T. Conrad Monts, an Annapolis developer involved in several contentious legal disputes in Washington. Monts wanted to make the building into offices but also proposed two projects nearby, including a parking garage. That, Smith said, would force people to walk to their cars from the Railway Express building, creating beneficial foot traffic.

The Creative Works project, scheduled to open in late 2003, will be "totally self-contained," he said. "What does that do for my neighborhood? Nothing at all." The 240 or so workers will "drive in, walk into the office and drive out."

Chuck Donofrio, Carton Donofrio's president and chief executive, disagreed. He said the area is poised for a "renaissance."

He said his firm's 65 employees, who work in an office building on West Fayette Street, will be out and about often. Some teach at nearby University of Baltimore, and the firm represents Maryland Institute College of Art.

At the same time, he said the plan for 111 secure parking spaces was "a big factor" for his employees worried about safety.

Copes said the two other proposals had big flaws: Financing doubts and the steady rumble of trains just feet away worked against a plan for high-end condominiums. Monts would have taken until 2005 to complete a large expansion, with no on-site parking and steep rents.

Monts' past disputes were "not a big factor," Copes said. But a $1.3 million fine imposed last year by a federal judge who found Monts misled the government in the 1980s was "taken more seriously," she said.

Monts was unavailable for comment yesterday, but Sharon Craig, executive vice president of his Washington Development Group, said it is too early to say if his other proposals for the neighborhood are dead.

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