Boutique office building planned for tiny site near Inner Harbor

7 tenants on 7 floors, 1,200 square feet per floor

August 09, 2002|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

The sliver of land near the Inner Harbor could fit inside the average Starbucks coffee shop, but a Towson attorney said yesterday that he plans to build offices for seven businesses on top of it.

At about 1,200 usable square feet per floor, that probably means no more than one company on each floor - companies that can count their employees on one hand.

"We're calling it a boutique office building," said Neil J. Ruther, the attorney, who has the triangular-shaped parcel at 517 E. Cross St. under contract.

With desirable land near the Inner Harbor becoming rare, developers such as Ruther are squeezing all they can onto most any parcel they can get their hands on. But this building is probably among the skinniest proposed in the city.

Ruther, who presented his plans publicly for the first time yesterday at a meeting of the city's Design Advisory Panel, said he plans to occupy one floor with his two-person firm. His architect, Parameter Inc., with four workers, will occupy another floor.

The site, sandwiched between Southern High School and the HarborView residential complex on Key Highway, takes up the corner of a larger block owned by HarborView and was once expected to be occupied by a nursing home. HarborView still plans to develop the block, possibly with housing. Franklin C. Wise, a HarborView vice president who was at the design panel meeting, said the height - up to 80 feet - and the building's style will probably affect what his company builds on its parcel.

"We need to look at the site," he said. "This was a surprise. We never dreamed someone could come up with something like that. It's very clever."

A real estate agent who leases office space in the city called the building unique.

"But unique doesn't make it bad," said Mark A. Shapiro, of the Shapiro Co. "That's a popular size floor-plate for small businesses, and anything with a water view is popular."

He said it is unusual to build such a slim building because, with elevators and bathrooms, they are less efficient and more expensive to build. Most other developers are seeking larger sites so that businesses of various sizes can fit onto one level.

Ruther plans to sell the offices, which he said could appeal to small businesses. Selling prices have not been determined, but development costs are expected to top $1 million, he said.

Christopher Pfaeffle, the Parameter architect who designed the initial concept for the building, said it will be a contemporary building made of glass, steel and terra cotta-colored material. He said it will be a "glowing beacon in the front ... with a lighthouse-like effect."

The plans are still conceptual, he said.

Ruther said he would need to sell a majority of the floors in his building before seeking financing, which could be difficult in a weak economy that has slowed the leasing of other city office buildings.

He also has to win over Federal Hill neighbors, who expressed concern about such a modern office building near their historic neighborhood.

Ruther said he needs a waiver from a city urban renewal plan that requires him to provide parking on the site.

As an alternative, he said, he plans to seek parking across Key Highway in a lot owned by HarborView, which plans to sell it to developers of the proposed Ritz-Carlton hotel and condominium project if that project proceeds.

Ruther said he plans to continue meeting with neighborhood groups and city officials to complete plans. If all goes well, he expects to begin construction in the fall and open the building in about 10 months.

"I want to move back to the city," Ruther said. "It's just beautiful here."

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