About as downtown as you can get

Apartment conversion of Munsey Building nears completion

July 05, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

You would wake up surrounded by bustling bank buildings, courthouses, office towers and City Hall. And go to bed in an area that, at day's end, turns into an eerie ghost town of shuttered doors.

But if you worked downtown, you'd have no commute - and a home address that's being promoted as "urban funky."

Late next month, the first tenants could move into the 18-story Munsey Building at Calvert and Fayette streets, launching a new experiment in Baltimore urban living. It doesn't get any more downtown than this.

Developer Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse is completing a $24 million conversion of the 89-year-old office building. By December it should have all 146 apartments done, with valet parking and concierge services. On the marble-and-bronze ground floor will be a coffee shop, a deli and a branch of Suzie's Soba, the Asian fusion restaurant in Hampden.

Struever officials are confident that people will pay between $950 and $2,100 a month for high-rise living three blocks north of the Inner Harbor. City officials have high hopes, too.

"The important thing about the Munsey Building is that it's the first housing in the financial district," said JoAnn Copes, the city's assistant housing commissioner for development.

Not only will the apartments put outdated office space back in use, she said, but they will also make downtown's core livelier at night and on weekends. Though the area hardly feels residential now, she said, "you've got to start somewhere."

The Munsey, which has not signed any tenants, won't be alone for long. Developer David Hillman is converting the Standard Oil building at 501 St. Paul St., where model apartments are expected to be available for inspection next month. The 16-story building will have 202 units. Apartments are also planned for 222 E. Saratoga St., a vacant office building.

One indication that a strong market exists for apartments in converted downtown buildings is that 35 of the 36 units in the former YMCA building at 300 N. Charles St. have been rented.

In recent years, downtown housing typically has meant the west side: Redwood Towers, the Atrium in the old Hecht's department store on Howard Street, the Congress Hotel on Franklin Street. The Munsey's rebirth marks an eastward shift to the core of the central business district.

But the area's institutional feel, and dearth of other residents, raises a question: Just who will want to live there? Easy, say Struever officials: Young professionals and empty-nesters who want to be near jobs at companies such as Legg Mason and just a short walk from the waterfront.

"To the extent you can be both near the water's edge and smack dab in the middle of the employment base, you have the best of both worlds," said Ted Rouse, a Struever Bros. partner leading the Munsey renovation.

Views of the Inner Harbor from upper floors won't hurt, he said. From the model on the 17th floor, one can see Federal Hill, a bit of harbor, the pyramidal National Aquarium and the Domino Sugars sign through the skyscrapers to the south. To the east, one looks out over City Hall's dome.

"People want a view if they're moving downtown," said Erin Webb, who will handle leasing for the Bozzuto property management firm. "People love that."

As for the after-work desolation, Struever officials prefer to think of it as quiet - and to view it as a lure for those seeking periods of solitude deep in the city.

Most apartments will be studios or one-bedroom units, with monthly rents of $950 to $1,450. Two-bedroom units will go for $1,360 to $1,800 a month and three-bedrooms for $2,100. The building will have a night guard and 24-hour fitness center. With 10 minutes' notice, valets will fetch cars from an underground parking area. (A space costs $110 a month.)

The apartments will have wall-to-wall carpet and high ceilings - some of them 12 feet - with touches such as wood cabinets, island kitchens and plenty of windows.

At first, Suzie's will open for lunch only but will serve dinner after three-quarters of the apartments are rented, said owner Sue Hi Hong. Rouse noted the proximity of restaurants on Charles Street and at the harbor. The Block's strip bars are also close, two blocks away. While Rouse would prefer they not be there, he said, they are "part of the landscape."

Rouse traces the idea for the building's transformation - aided by state and federal historic tax credits - to his youth. He recalls seeing birds flying into the area at dusk, just as people abandoned their offices for the night.

"I felt something other than starlings should be living in our financial district," he said.

The neoclassical Munsey building was named after Frank Munsey, a New York businessman. It was one of the first high-rises built in Baltimore after the Great Fire of 1904 and one of the last remaining from that time.

The building, overlooking Monument Square, was occupied for years by Equitable Bank and other financial institutions. It has been vacant since the mid-1990s. Struever bought it in 2000.

Though the apartments will be thoroughly modern, the lobby area will hark back to the building's glory days, with its restored marble floors and walls, brass elevator doors and black wrought-iron gate.

"How many apartments can you walk into with a solid marble lobby and brass fittings?" said architect Tom Liebel of Design Collective. "It's living like people used to live."

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