Housing part of vision for Main Street

Business owners might get tax incentive to use space

`This is a great place to live'

Upper floors of stores seen as apartments

November 23, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Though many visitors to Annapolis have eyes only for the bars, restaurants and stores of Main Street, city officials and some business owners have a broader vision.

"This is a great place to live," said Larry Vincent, owner of Laurance Clothing Inc. of Main Street. "Anyone who's interested in an urban environment would think this is hot."

Vincent and others envision a multitude of new apartments on the second and third floors of buildings on and around Main Street and in the city's historic district, where a recent city survey found nearly 56,000 vacant square feet in the buildings occupied by various businesses.

While city officials say that not all of the space is suitable living space, they still are preparing a package of tax incentives and parking privileges to encourage business owners to turn their upper floors into residential and office space.

They hope the breaks will encourage long-awaited renovations, which many business owners have put off because of high costs and logistical problems. They also say more apartments could bring a new wave of residents downtown.

"We want higher [residential] density," said Mike Mirion, the city's economic development director.

That is welcome news to Vincent, who has been trying to turn the second floor of his store into an apartment for several years. Vincent uses the space for storage for his store but envisions it as a three-bedroom apartment. He wants to raise the ceiling and add a bar and another bathroom, work he estimates would cost $100,000.

Vincent clearly relishes the idea, taking a visitor from room to musty room to point out the amenities. "See, it would have beautiful views," he said, pushing aside a curtain to display a view of Main Street. "Especially around Christmastime."

But he also is excited about attracting a certain type of tenant. "It would be perfect for someone young who wants to live in the city and walk to work," he said.

Vincent estimates he could rent the apartment for $1,000 a month and hopes that price would be affordable enough to attract young workers or retirees. "It's what passes for market rent these days," he said. "The demand is extraordinary."

Although he has considered doing the work for years, the cost and difficulties in building in a historic district always discouraged him. But the prospect of tax breaks could make it easier for him. "The question has always been: `Does this work economically?'" he said. "Maybe it could now."

Other merchants say they also are eager to expand. Bruce Chance, the manager at WR Chance Jewelers on Main Street, said he always has wanted to renovate the upper floors of the building for office and work space, which would allow him to hire more employees and expand his first-floor showroom.

It would cost well over $100,000, and Chance said he might have to shut down his store while construction is being done. But he was more worried that any future employees would have no place to park in Annapolis' notoriously crowded downtown.

"Unless they fix the parking situation, it's not going to be easy to add space," he said.

Mirion said parking privileges in local garages or similar incentives would probably be offered.

Some people already live above stores along Main Street. Katie Hightower lives above the Ego Alley bar on Dock Street, partially because it reminded her of New York.

"It's a great concept, and that's what I bought into," she said.

Hightower said she enjoys living above a bar -- "You sometimes have to tell people to shut up, but I can live with it," she said. But downtown Annapolis does have its drawbacks.

Hightower has lived downtown for nearly two months, and she said she has already accumulated $750 in parking tickets.

"There's nowhere around here to put your car," she said. Hightower said she was unsure of how long she would continue to live above Ego Alley. "It takes a special person to live here," she said.

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