Uptown living, downtown

More than a dozen residential buildings are in the works in Baltimore -- all competing to attract affluent young professionals.

January 19, 2003|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

In a city of established neighborhoods with distinct personalities, the nascent downtown apartment market has an image problem.

Few potential residents have an idea of what living in the business district would be like.

But developers who have invested time and millions of dollars on uncharted residential territory are crafting messages they hope will be persuasive: The buildings are "luxurious" and "urban" with "high ceilings" and "24-hour" fitness and business centers "within walking distance" of everything.

At least 14 buildings have been completed, are under construction or are planned. Each has its own campaign, but all are targeting the same pool of young professionals, students and empty-nesters to fill thousands of units -- most leasing for at least $1,000 a month.

"We usually try and get Web sites up a few months before a building opens, and we have pretty nice brochures. ... We are cultivating our relationships with human resources departments at major employers downtown," said David Hillman, whose Southern Management Co. converted the former Hecht's department store on Howard Street and a 1920s office building on St. Paul Place.

As in other cities seeking to attract residents downtown, the buildings will compete for people who are considering buying a house instead of renting because of historically low interest rates. They will confront a weak employment market, especially for the young college graduates they court.

And they will battle the perception that people work, but do not live, downtown.

"By and large, the general population thinks downtown is a 9-to-5 office park," said Robert Aydukovic, who tracks apartment development for the Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy group. "It seems like a daunting task to figure out who to market to, but our studies tell us the market segments."

The largest target is young professionals and students 18 to 35 years old. They are followed by empty-nesters looking to trade large suburban homes and lawns for an urban lifestyle. There ise also a small number of families with high incomes and children in private school.

Aydukovic said downtown's employment pool of about 100,000 alone could produce renters for the new apartments, which will total less than 5,000 units if all those planned are built. He also expects people moving from out of town for work to fill some apartments.

Not all people want to buy a house, he said. They want to be in the center of the action, walk to work and have the landlord fix things.

But no one knows how deep the stream of renters runs. That may prompt the next wave of developers and their lenders to wait for demand to catch up with supply, Aydukovic said.

The downtown market is still relatively small, he said. Six buildings from the harbor to Mount Vernon began leasing recently, adding more than 750 units to about 3,300 existing rental units downtown.

They include the Munsey with 150 units, PierSide with 160 units, the Congress with 36 units, the "Y" building with 36 units, the Standard with 200 units and the Atrium with 170 units.

Those open have various levels of occupancy, and some managers concede leasing is a bit slow. The Munsey on Calvert Street is 26 percent leased and the Standard, which opened this month on St. Paul Place, has just a few spots filled, according to their managers. The Atrium, which opened about a year and a half ago, is 85 percent full.

On the way is Centerpoint on downtown's west side with 400 units, Spinnaker Bay on the harbor with 340 units, and Saratoga Court on Saratoga Street with 77 units.

Several other new apartment buildings are on the drawing board, including the Zenith, a 165-unit building near Camden Yards, and Water Tower, a 350-unit complex to be built atop a city parking garage.

Apartment developers and managers are using the latest promotional techniques, including Web sites and online apartment guides. They are also handing out brochures, sending targeted mailings and hanging signs on the buildings and on college and employer bulletin boards.

Tracy Gosson, executive director of the Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit group that promotes city living, believes it would be more effective for developers to present a cohesive message that creates an image for downtown, rather than pitch individual properties.

"We're really excited about the new product and its diversity of style, how it's spread out in downtown," she said. "My biggest problem is the lack of big-picture thinking."

She said downtown needs to be marketed as a neighborhood so potential tenants know what to expect when they open their front doors, such as where to go shop and eat, how close employers are located and how little crime exists.

In addition to delis and coffee shops planned within some buildings, Gosson said, developers need to lure grocers and other retailers downtown.

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