Cleaned-up AlliedSignal site ready for revival

Morgan Stanley company among proposed tenants

December 12, 2003|By Scott Calvert and June Arney | Scott Calvert and June Arney,SUN STAFF

Construction could begin this summer on a $45 million office building at the former AlliedSignal chromium plant site, developers said yesterday - the surest sign yet of a revival at the once-polluted industrial property jutting into Baltimore Harbor.

Developers would not name the likely tenant for one of the waterfront's last major vacant spaces. But city officials confirmed it is financial services giant Morgan Stanley & Co. Inc., which leases space in adjacent Fells Point and has shown interest in expanding in the city.

The New York company has an option to lease the planned building, Thames Pier, which would rise 90 feet on a new pier.

That building, developers hope, would be the first step in a possibly decade-long transformation of the desolate 27-acre tract, now called Harbor Point. In all, plans call for seven office buildings, some 180 feet high, a hotel, shops and restaurants. Eleven acres would be set aside for public open space and a cultural facility of some sort.

C. William Struever and John Paterakis Sr., two major developers in Baltimore, have revised their plans, hoping to win over those living and working by Harbor Point. The Living Classrooms Foundation, for example, says the proposal has improved but still worries that the pier building could crowd its planned park dedicated to black maritime heritage.

With only small streets leading up to the site, traffic is a huge concern in the area.

It once seemed hard to imagine Harbor Point as a desirable address. City development head M.J. "Jay" Brodie recalls wearing a protective "space suit" on a tour over a decade ago.

That was before a $100 million cleanup and capping job by Allied and the company it merged with, Honeywell International. Since then much planning, and replanning, has occurred, including an updated blueprint that the city Design Advisory Panel endorsed yesterday after some changes.

"It's been a long time coming," said Lawrence J. White, senior development director at Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse.

One document guiding the project - the revised "planned unit development" - still needs Planning Commission and City Council approval. And the design panel will have to sign off on detailed plans for the office building itself.

It is an ambitious but doable timetable, said Brodie, president of quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. and a design panel member. "That would be terrific progress," he said.

White said the tenant could exercise its option on the pier building in the first half of next year and "we want to prepare to accommodate the tenant's growth needs." It's not clear if Morgan Stanley would be the sole occupant.

Morgan Stanley was circumspect.

"We're in the early stages of a multiyear ramp-up in Baltimore, but we have no immediate plans to expand beyond our current footprint," said spokeswoman Andrea Slattery. She denied that an expansion of its offices was planned soon or that construction would happen as soon as June.

Brodie said the developers have not asked for tax breaks or other city subsidies, "nor would we anticipate anything." He said $8.1 million in city and state incentives used to lure Morgan Stanley to Baltimore "should be sufficient motivation for the development to move forward."

Harbor Point, nearly as big as the Memorial Stadium site, has long drawn the attention of the city's business community.

"This is the last significant piece of Inner Harbor real estate," said Michael Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership, a business advocacy group. "If true, certainly this follows trends that we're seeing with a lot of Class A office space moving to the waterfront. It's just a matter of time before someone scoops up that parcel."

That trend does not bode well for office buildings in the heart of downtown, where the vacancy rate is 20 percent. Brodie, though, said if companies clamor for space on the water, "it's our job to try to help make that happen."

New drawings of Harbor Point suggest an approach more in step with the low-slung feel of Fells Point, he said, with an extension of Thames Street leading to "dramatic open space" on the tract's west side. The addition of pier buildings to the design, an echo of the past, made it "far more interesting, made it Baltimore."

At the design panel's request, the developers agreed to drop the height of the pier building from 120 feet to 90. (Buildings in the middle of the project could still reach 180 feet.) They also cut its length by 15 feet, a change they said should make the Living Classrooms maritime park feel less hemmed in.

The 200,000-square-foot pier building would resemble a slightly smaller version of the six-story Bond Street Wharf, a new building meant to evoke old waterfront warehouses. To James Piper Bond, president of Living Classrooms, it would be too big for the maritime park.

"When we have this kind of massing, it puts the squeeze on the site and really crowds the project," Bond said, adding that he supports Harbor Point overall.

Bond also worries about a possible bridge the developers have said would alleviate traffic. Such a bridge, while not shown on plans yesterday, possibly could span from Central Avenue into the site, cutting off the sailing center at Living Classrooms' main campus. Bond said developers have promised marina space elsewhere in that event.

Some area residents seem resigned to the project. "We cried 10 years ago over the immensity of it, the density," said Bob Keith of Fells Point. "There's no point in crying again. All we can do is work with them over the green space and the looks of it."

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