Former dump proves diamond in the rough

`Gem': As buildable land becomes scarce around Baltimore, even bad sites are looking good to developers.

January 10, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Call it a rubble-to-riches redevelopment.

An emerging business complex perched over the Jones Falls Expressway in the Bare Hills area, just north of the city, stands on ground that was once a storage spot and dump for Potts & Callahan Inc. It took more than bulldozers to transform the 37 acres into a suitable foundation for upscale flex space - it took a 30,000-pound weight dropped repeatedly from 65 feet up.

That's what was needed to tamp down the soil, asphalt chunks and other pieces of construction projects past so they don't settle later and damage the buildings. It might seem odd, but such extra work is increasingly on the to-do list for real estate companies working in heavily developed metropolitan areas like Baltimore, where available land is rarely ideal.

At the Bare Hills Corporate Center complex, the site work alone cost $1 million.

"It's becoming more and more common because all the good sites have been used up," said Joe Drumheller, president of Densification Inc., which did the "dynamic compaction" at Bare Hills and works nationwide. "There's nothing but the bad sites left."

Continental Realty Corp., which owns the property and moved its offices there from Towson, believes it's an excellent site now that the land can be trusted to stay put. Officials note that it is inside the Beltway, a hop away from Interstate 83 and a light-rail stop.

J.M. Schapiro, Continental's president and chief operating officer, called it "a hidden gem."

"It was a never-never land - people did not realize it was there," said Lawrence G. Rief, a partner in the company.

The land sits at the end of Clarkview Road off Falls Road. Before they began recrafting it, the most prominent feature was a mountain of Belgian block, the material used in cobblestones. Rief figures it stretched 10 feet high and 500 feet across, hundreds of thousands of stones piled on top of one another.

There's still a small pile of the silvery-gray blocks left that Continental intends to work into the development eventually. But now a 50,000-square-foot brick building, finished in September, is the main attraction. A Ripken Baseball office and Velocity Sports Performance, a sports training center, share the space with the real-estate company.

Continental is planning three more buildings. It will begin constructing two in the spring.

"It's a terrific location," said Jamie McDonald, president of Velocity Sports Performance's Bare Hills location. "We have a real need to be ... on a well-traveled route for parents and kids. We felt like this put us in the center of everything."

Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III, Baltimore County's planning director, said the small Bare Hills community has seen a lot of redevelopment, and it's a trend officials are trying to encourage everywhere. Last year the county expanded its loan offerings and other incentives for redeveloping in its 13 commercial revitalization districts.

Developers invariably shoulder extra costs to remake old sites, and even the vacant land remaining in the county has its own set of challenges, Keller said.

"All the easy stuff has long been done," he said. "Not only are we into the tough stuff, we're into the toughest stuff."

Continental Realty wouldn't dispute that. As Rief looked out over the rolling, tree-lined property, he declared: "This was not a simple site."

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