Developer in inquiry says tower is on track

Subpoenaed in U.S. case, businessman yet to build apartments on west side

May 02, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The Zenith, a 23-story luxury apartment tower, was supposed to have reshaped Baltimore's skyline by now, with residents on top floors able to peer into Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Instead, the Zenith site is still a parking lot at Pratt and Paca streets. And much is riding on the project's outcome for both the developer and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has hailed the project as a showcase of his efforts to encourage minority-owned businesses.

Despite months of delay, the developer and city officials say the $35 million, city-aided project remains on track two years after it was announced with fanfare. They say work on the sleek tower should begin by late summer.

"I'm confident it's going to go ahead and be built and that the design continues to be a good one," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp.

Developer Brian D. Morris, chief executive officer of Legacy Harrison Enterprises, said he is working to finalize private financing. His efforts continue amid word that he has received a subpoena from federal prosecutors who may be looking at the city's efforts to assist minority-owned companies.

Morris promised that the building would be worth the wait.

"We are creating a world-class luxury experience," he said. "This is not a cheap proposition. We could have endeavored to create an average living experience and been done by now. But that is not what we promised the city."

The city has been supportive of the deal. The Board of Estimates, which the mayor controls, granted the Zenith a 15-year break on its property taxes. The board also accepted $750,000 for the half-acre site - $450,000 less than Legacy Harrison had offered - after the Zenith's height had to be cut to avoid a helicopter flight path.

For Morris and business partner Dean S. Harrison, Zenith represents the first major deal they have undertaken on their own. Delivering 191 high-end apartments at a prominent gateway to downtown would be a major feat.

The 33-year-old Morris has raised his profile in recent years after working in investment banking, mostly at Merrill Lynch & Co., and starting his own investment brokerage firm, Legacy Unlimited. Last year, O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. jointly named Morris to the Baltimore school board.

More recently, Morris - along with contractor and developer Ronald H. Lipscomb - has received a subpoena from U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio asking for records reflecting any income, loans or grants he received from the city and any gifts he gave City Council President Sheila Dixon and three former city officials, sources said.

Subpoenas for documents do not indicate that the recipients are targets of an investigation. The subpoenas do not say that the businessmen, Dixon or three former officials are subjects of the investigation, according to sources.

"The subpoena is nothing more than a legal request for information," Morris said. "There was a request for information. There was a subsequent submission of information."

He gave no details.

The U.S. attorney's office has declined to comment on its inquiry.

While Morris' background is mostly in finance, Harrison has development experience from his tenure at A&R Development, a prominent minority-owned firm. He did not return a message left at his office last week.

The Zenith is not Legacy Harrison's only deal. The enterprise is co-developing pier townhouses at HarborView off Key Highway. It also hopes to build residential units over a city-owned garage on Water Street downtown; Legacy Harrison owns the air rights but not the garage, the land or an adjacent lot.

But the Zenith would be the real gem, with its curvy facade visible along Pratt Street and southern approaches to the city, not to mention from the upper deck at Camden Yards. Rents are expected to range from $1,200 to $2,500 a month.

Initially, Legacy Harrison's development team included Lipscomb and Landmark Parking. They left the team around the time that the city awarded the site in May 2002, when a commercial garage was scrapped from the plan.

The commercial garage was cut because the building's height had to shrink by 40 feet to ensure it did not interfere with helicopters landing at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. The design calls for a 250-space garage on lower floors, and Lipscomb's Doracon construction firm is expected to build the Zenith.

Four proposals

Long before O'Malley announced Legacy Harrison's selection, the Baltimore Development Corp. - the city's economic development arm - formed an advisory panel for input on four Paca-Pratt proposals.

Three of the panel's six members came from the O'Malley administration. One of them was Owen Tonkins, then the mayor's director of Minority Business Development, who has also been a member of the BDC board.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.