West-side building owner urged by city, developers to use it or lose it

Abell's condemnation is last resort, officials say

October 15, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The small trees that shoot weed-like from the roof of the Abell Building in downtown Baltimore are not exactly what planners have in mind when they speak of "green space."

The scraggly vegetation suggests a slow, ominous return to a state of nature and stands as a living testament to years of failed plans to revamp the historically significant structure at Baltimore and Eutaw streets.

Now the city is demanding far more than a simple pruning. If the owner does not redevelop the building soon, the city is threatening to acquire it by condemnation and find a developer who will give it new life.

"We really want to see it move forward," said Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer at Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency.

Michael Abrams, whose family realty firm owns the Abell, built around 1878, said plans will materialize this time - he intends to convert the old warehouse into 41 apartments and first-floor shops.

Despite the look of the exterior, with its peeling paint and metal panels, the building is not empty. Among the remaining tenants is a clothing wholesaler.

"We're in the midst of redeveloping it," Abrams said, estimating work could begin early next year.

The city is demanding progress on the Abell for many reasons. The six-story building sits in an area where more than $130 million is being spent to redevelop downtown's west side. In addition, officials don't want it to deteriorate and risk being demolished, as recently happened to the nearby Johnston Building.

The structure was built by A.S. Abell, founder of The Sun, as an investment property. According to A Guide to Baltimore Architecture by John Dorsey and James D. Dilts, it is "Baltimore's finest surviving warehouse from the period."

Its ornate facade comprises a variety of materials, including cast iron and brick with bluestone, white marble and terra cotta trim, according to the book. The result is a blending of a neo-Grecian storefront and Italianate upper faM-gade.

The building's location, though, is as important to the city as its architecture and history. Catty-corner to the Abell is the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, now in the midst of a $63 million construction and renovation project. Just across Baltimore Street, the 394-apartment Centerpoint development, costing approximately $75 million, is supposed to rise soon.

The Vault nightclub across Eutaw to the west is expected to remain. But the University of Maryland Medical System is eyeing buildings west of the Vault for conversion to offices, cafes and shops. A check-cashing office and liquor store are among the current tenants.

The Abell is a "critical link," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., a business group that promotes efforts to revitalize downtown's west side.

"All we care is that the building gets done, remove the trees from the roof," he said. "It's a wonderful building. The quality is just incredible, the material, the designs. We have to be assured it can be done. If it takes public acquisition eventually to do that, we have to do that."

With the City Council's blessing, BDC can use condemnation in some cases to gain control of properties it wants redeveloped. The owner must be given fair-market compensation, but has no choice in the sale.

The tool has been integral to the city's ambitious effort to revive downtown's west side, and critics say the city has not always given existing owners enough opportunity to do their own rehab plans.

Condemnation is not cheap. The city spent about $23 million to acquire nearly an entire city block for Centerpoint, which has been stalled by a dispute between a subcontractor and the developer, Bank of America.

In spite of the cost, economic development officials are seeking City Council approval to acquire a number of additional properties - including the Abell. The legislation is currently in the City Council, and Grinnell expects passage later this fall. She did not estimate how much it would cost the city to acquire all of the buildings.

After spending years waiting for Abrams to make good on redevelopment plans that date at least to 1994, Grinnell is growing impatient. "What I want to be able to say very soon is renovation at Abell is going to start on such and such a date," she said.

If Abrams continues to make progress - he is working with Dutch investors and met last month with the city Design Advisory Panel - Grinnell said the building will come off the condemnation list. But it's an "if."

"There is too much invested immediately around them that we can't afford to allow the Abell Building to continue to look as it does," she said.

Abrams, president of the David & Annie Abrams Realty Corp., insisted he will make the city happy. But when prodded for additional details about his plans, he said: "I typically don't go public with any of our projects until you see it off the ground. ... You never know what will happen in the future."

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