Firm spends $6 million to stay put

Downtown: Miles & Stockbridge is remodeling its eight floors of offices at 10 Light St.

April 07, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

While other businesses have abandoned downtown Baltimore for new waterfront offices, Miles & Stockbridge PC instead has spent more than $6 million reshaping space in the Bank of America building that it has occupied for more than 70 years.

"You just can't find a building like this," said John B. Frisch, chairman and chief executive officer of the law firm. "It's an extraordinary building. It's got so much soul, and it's right in the heart of the central business district."

Downtown business leaders hope the firm's innovative and economical effort will help encourage others to reinvent their homes in the city's traditional commercial district rather than move out.

Too often companies assume that older space is too difficult, too costly and too time-consuming to reconfigure, and opt for new space instead, Michele L. Whelley, president of the Downtown Partnership, said yesterday.

"It's almost like this is a textbook case of looking at these old buildings in new ways," she said.

The landmark building at 10 Light St., considered a prime example of Art Deco architecture, has been home to Miles & Stockbridge since 1932, and employees didn't want to leave. Cost comparisons showed that renovating the building would be a better value to the firm in the long term, Frisch said.

But the hallways and work areas seemed dark and outdated, the space chopped up by cubicles with high walls.

And recent technological changes have altered the way law is practiced. For instance, the multiple conference rooms on each floor - once so crucial for client meetings - are no longer necessary because closings and agreements frequently can be handled online. Huge amounts of library and storage space could be eliminated through use of electronic files and records.

"One of the things we wanted to get was a sense of openness, energy," Frisch said. "We wanted our design to complement the history of the building and be respectful of that, and at the same time communicate a real energetic, 21st-century aesthetic."

Before the renovation, scheduled for completion in November, the firm's offices could accommodate 94 lawyers, Frisch said. The reconfigured space can house 150, and most still will have window offices, he said.

The design work was done by the Baltimore office of Gensler Inc., an international architecture and design firm.

The law firm occupies eight floors and has 272 employees, including 113 attorneys.

A large conference center, with interconnecting spaces of varying shapes and sizes, will replace three to five smaller conference rooms that used to be on various floors, Frisch said.

The new space uses shades of cream and beige, and bounces light off the ceilings for brightness. Cubicles have been cut down or eliminated to open up the building. Frosted-glass panels on interior walls of offices with windows allow sunlight to pass through those offices and into the inner work space.

An open layout for the cafe and copying areas at the center of the space is designed to encourage interaction and collaboration.

"This is the best part, the fact that the light all comes through and makes it feel much more open," said Benjamin D. Horowicz, one of the attorneys. "When you're walking through the hallways, you get a view of the city skyline. Before, when you walked down the hall it was almost like walking down a tunnel."

Horowicz was one of those who didn't want to move.

"I'm really happy we stayed," he said. "I think it has character that a lot of the new buildings don't possess."

Downtown Baltimore lost 2.9 percent of its jobs, a total of about 2,600, in the 12 months that ended in August, in part because of a shift in office space from downtown to locations on the waterfront in places such as Fells Point, Bond Street Wharf, Tide Point and Canton, according to the most recent data available.

Almost 12 percent of downtown's employment decline resulted from companies that moved jobs out of the city center, with its older buildings and aging infrastructure, into Class A space elsewhere in the city, according to the report released in January by the Downtown Partnership.

RTKL moved more than 200 jobs from 1 South St. to Bond Street Wharf, and Performax moved 135 jobs from 111 S. Calvert St. to Tide Point.

"There will always be a healthy dynamic between new and older space," Whelley said. "There's an attractiveness about newness. But I think what we've started to achieve in the core of downtown is that there is a uniqueness to some of the older downtown neighborhoods that provides companies with a choice."

A recent study by the Johns Hopkins Real Estate Institute warns that the Baltimore office market will remain flat for the next few years because of a decline in new leasing space resulting from the lack of job growth. Development of new office space will not pick up until current space is absorbed, said the Hopkins report released last week.

Downtown Partnership plans to trumpet Miles & Stockbridge to any business contemplating a renovation.

"We hope that when people come and see the space, that they see the real creative possibilities that there are in old, traditional buildings," Frisch said. "We have all the contemporary amenities, usefulness and energy in a way that complements the tradition of the building."

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