Builder backs off plan for tower

Hackerman considered investing in landmark

`We need to step back'

Decision seen as setback to west-side development

December 12, 2004|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Construction magnate Willard Hackerman has backed away from plans to invest in the redevelopment of Baltimore's historic Bromo Seltzer tower, just days after he pulled out of a disputed land acquisition deal in St. Mary's County.

Hackerman, chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., had been negotiating to purchase federal preservation tax credits as the last piece of a financing package that would enable Baltimore to proceed with a $1.5 million renovation of the vacant tower at 15 S. Eutaw St., transforming it to artists' studios.

After land preservationists and Democratic legislative leaders criticized a state plan to sell Hackerman 836 acres in St. Mary's County that were purchased with public funds intended to protect open space, Hackerman withdrew his offer in a letter released by state officials Nov. 8.

Shortly after last month's election, he also notified a city representative that he was not prepared to proceed with the plan to buy preservation tax credits associated with the Bromo Seltzer tower project.

The decision represents a setback for revitalization efforts on the west side of downtown Baltimore, where restoration of the 1911 Bromo Seltzer tower was intended to activate a prominent city landmark.

The slender building, modeled after a 13th-century watch tower in Florence, Italy, and highly visible on the city skyline, has been vacant since the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture moved out in March 2002.

Built as part of the factory that made Bromo Seltzer, a headache remedy, and later donated to the city, the 15-story tower has proven difficult to renovate because each floor contains only 900 square feet of space -- less than many one-bedroom apartments. The city housing department sought proposals from developers several years ago but received none that it deemed acceptable.

The city's latest plan calls for the tower to contain studios for 15 to 20 artists on the upper floors, plus a commercial space at street level. In last month's election, city voters approved a bond issue that will provide $500,000 in partial funding, with additional money coming from the Baltimore Development Corp., the Maryland Heritage Authority, the Neighborhood Partnership Program and the sale of tax credits, among other sources.

Construction had been scheduled to begin in the spring and be complete by late next year, if the financial details could be made final this fall. Hackerman's change of heart means the city cannot move ahead until it finds a new buyer for the federal tax credits or makes other funding arrangements.

Hackerman could not be reached for comment. In a letter to the editor published last week in The Sun, he wrote that the dispute over the St. Mary's transaction "has been a very painful experience arising out of what was an act designed to help the environment."

Hackerman noted that he has been responsible for "tens of millions of dollars in contributions" in recent years to more than 600 mostly local charitable organizations. He said he has been "unfairly punished by the onslaught of negative publicity fueled by those who callously tried to harm my reputation for political and other purposes."

The Bromo Seltzer tower, also known as the Baltimore Arts Tower, was home to the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture for nearly three decades, starting in 1974. City employees moved out after the agency was merged with the old Office of Promotion to create the Office of Promotion and the Arts, on Redwood Street. Bill Gilmore, head of the combined agency, has been working since then to find an appropriate use for the tower and has long been intrigued by the idea of converting it to artists' studios.

No secret

Hackerman's potential involvement in the Bromo Seltzer tower renovation was no secret to city leaders and others who follow west-side development closely. In recent weeks, word circulated that Hackerman, who shuns publicity, was having second thoughts about staying involved in the Bromo tower project in light of the attention surrounding the St. Mary's County transaction. His company is still working with the Baltimore Development Corp. on plans to build a 750-room hotel next to Baltimore's Convention Center, according to BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie.

Gilmore, who has overseen planning for the arts tower conversion with project director Jody Albright, said he is hopeful that Hackerman will reconsider his decision not to buy the Bromo tower tax credits. But Gilmore said his agency also has begun looking for another investor to replace Hackerman, if necessary, so the project can move ahead.

Gilmore said Hackerman contacted Albright sometime after the Nov. 2 election to tell her he did not want to proceed with the project. "Mr. Hackerman said, `We need to step back at the present time, and you should look for a new investor if you need to,'" Gilmore said.

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