Car dealer to follow the money downtown

Icebreaker: It may soon be possible to buy a Beetle or a Lamborghini - in a downtown parking garage.

October 04, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Downtown Baltimore's first car dealership in decades, planned for the ground floor of a high-profile parking garage at Pratt and President streets, won't be your typical auto showroom.

Anyone walking on the south side of Pratt will be able to peer through the tinted windows and watch the mechanics at work, in much the same way diners at some trendy restaurants can observe chefs in action.

If that's not catchy enough, Antwerpen Automotive Group plans to stock more than the latest Volkswagens. It may show off a few Italian-flavored "exotic" Lamborghini sports cars in a conscious nod to nearby Little Italy, or one of the high-priced American-made Panoz sports cars.

The dealership's setup is meant to marry flair and function. The idea is to give people something to look at while offering downtown's burgeoning population a nearby place to buy cars and have them serviced.

From the city's standpoint, it will mean new activity in what has been a dead commercial space in the parking garage. The proposed dealership may also prove to be a prized amenity for residents and the source of 75 or so high-paying jobs, including job training for aspiring technicians in the area.

Little Italy activist Roberto Marsili said the neighborhood welcomes Antwerpen. "It is a great [source of] pride for us," he said, "but a great thing for Baltimore City also. It's restoring some kind of confidence in our city."

It's not a done deal yet. The location's zoning still must be changed, and the area's urban renewal plan needs to be amended. The city, while very supportive, has not signed off on the design. And the African-American museum set to rise soon across Pratt and adjacent to Flag House wants assurances that the showroom will not be a detraction.

But assuming everything falls into place, the dealership will open April 1, Antwerpen says. Along with the new Whole Foods gourmet grocery a few blocks away, it signals growing recognition that residents in Canton, Fells Point, Inner Harbor East and Federal Hill have serious buying power.

"You follow the money, and the money is coming downtown," explained Stanford Hess, senior vice president of Antwerpen. The new outlet will be "tasteful," he said.

"It isn't going to be some schlock thing," he said. No "0% financing" signs will hang in the window, no multicolored flags will flap in the breeze.

By his reckoning the last truly downtown car dealership was Hobelmann Volkswagen, long gone from Light Street near Federal Hill. The Anderson dealership has expanded its operations at Howard and 25th streets, but for the most part buying a car in Baltimore means a trip to the suburbs.

Large unused space

The new dealership will fill a large space that was always meant to hold shops but has sat empty since the garage opened 1 1/2 years ago.

Drugstores, bookstores, even offices were courted, but none bit, said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm. The lack of foot traffic on President Street may have discouraged prospective tenants, officials said.

To ease concerns of Little Italy restaurants, no food establishments were allowed in the garage, which is owned by Washington developer Kingdon Gould III.

Antwerpen's interest stems in part from the experiences of its principal owners. Jack Antwerpen has a condominium at HarborView and a dock for his mega-yacht. One of his sons bought a home in Canton, and another lives in Fells Point. Both are in the business.

"They see what's going on, the revitalization of the city," Hess said.

At 23,000 square feet, the garage space is close to the size of suburban showrooms, minus the sprawling parking lots, Hess said. The plan is to put sales offices along President Street and service bays on Pratt.

New Volkswagens - including a convertible Beetle, revived minibus and VW's new SUV - are to be arranged in a circle inside, not visible from the street. Some cars will be stored on a nearby lot and 100 or so on the garage's top level, Hess said.

The six-figure exotic cars would be in a separate 2,000-square-foot space just east of the garage's entrance ramp on Pratt. Antwerpen already sells the Panoz, which can cost up to $100,000, but the even pricier Lamborghinis might be displayed there as well.

Cars being brought in for repairs will use the Stiles Street side of the garage, Hess said. In addition, he said, tinted windows will make it impossible to see inside the service area from the African-American museum across Pratt Street. A person would have to be near the window to see inside.

That is a major concern, said George L. Russell Jr., a Baltimore attorney leading the effort to build the $33 million Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. A groundbreaking will be held in about a month, Russell said, with an opening planned for fall 2004.

`Good neighbor' wanted

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