A parking lot in Baltimore's Mount Vernon historic district will be the site of a $20 million, 83-unit condominium development by mid-2006, under plans by Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse and AEGON Insurance Group.
Members of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association gave preliminary approval this week to plans that call for a six-level building to fill much of the block bounded by Charles, Preston and Biddle streets and Lovegrove Alley.
The project is the largest of several condominium developments planned for the Mount Vernon area and the first on Charles Street. It marks the culmination of years of effort by AEGON and others to bring activity to the highly visible parcel, which has been a parking lot since the 1970s.
The developers intend to preserve and recycle four buildings at the northeast corner of Charles and Biddle streets as part of the project, including the former Danny's restaurant, the Anneslie apartments and a building that houses Thai Landing restaurant.
"This is the first major new construction on Charles Street in decades," said Steve Johnson, president of the community association, whose architectural review committee gave the project preliminary approval Tuesday. "We've said for a very long time that good, quality development at the right density is economically feasible in our historic district, and this is an ideal example of that."
"If they had asked members of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association to design the project, we couldn't have done a better job," said Paul Warren, the group's vice president. "It's just right. It preserves the buildings that are there. It establishes that buildings at a proper scale can be economical in Mount Vernon. You don't have to construct a 20-story building here in order to make money."
Part of AEGON's 58,000- square-foot parcel was occupied by an 1889 theater called the Albaugh, which burned down in 1924. AEGON has been working since last year with Struever and its architect, Design Collective of Baltimore. Builder's First Choice is handling sales.
Struever wants to secure design approvals this fall and acquire the property by year's end so it can begin construction by next spring.
The plan, which will be presented to Baltimore's preservation commission next month, calls for four levels of housing to rise over two levels of parking, with 144 parking spaces in all.
The housing would frame a landscaped courtyard in the middle of the block. The parking levels would be partially below ground and "wrapped" by 15,000 square feet of retail space fronting on Charles Street and part of Preston Street.
The four existing buildings would be renovated to provide commercial space at street level and 12 to 14 residences above, most likely rental apartments. Thai Landing, a tenant of 1207 N. Charles St., would remain. The former Danny's space may serve initially as a sales center for the condominiums.
Amy Bonitz, senior development director for Struever, said the one- and two-bedroom condominiums are intended to appeal to a variety of prospects, including first-time buyers, young professionals, commuters who want to be near Pennsylvania Station, faculty members at the University of Baltimore and "empty-nesters" who want to live close to the cultural attractions in midtown. Residences will range from about 1,000 square feet to 1,700 square feet. Amenities will include balconies, roof decks, 10-foot ceilings and flexible floor plans.
AEGON doesn't need the land for its own expansion but wants it used to improve the Charles Street corridor, said Henry Hagan, president and chief executive officer of Monumental Life Insurance Co., a member of the AEGON Insurance Group, and chairman of the nonprofit Charles Street Development Corp.
"We have to increase the number of residents in this corridor if we want to improve the quality of life, and I think this will be the catalyst for a lot more," he said. "For a change, you're going to see cranes in midtown."
"We're making a real effort to animate Charles Street" with the architecture, said designer Chris Harvey. "We want it to be exciting. We have the feeling that it could create a new stir, a new buzz in Baltimore. There's a need for that."
Baltimore's condominium market, once sluggish, is now very strong because of changing demographics and other factors, according to Bill Cassidy, sales manager for the Fells Point office of Long and Foster Realtors.
"Every 7 1/2 seconds, someone in America turns 50," he said. "That's done more to help condo sales in the Baltimore area than anything else."