West side leads city's resurgence

West side is jobs leader

`Progress': Downtown Partnership to report today on gains in quality of life.

February 10, 2005|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's long-struggling west side is outperforming the rest of downtown - even the waterfront - on jobs and some other measures of economic vitality, a sign that redevelopment efforts are gaining traction.

That statistical barometer of health comes from the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc.'s 2004 "state of downtown" report, which will be released today and paints a mostly positive picture of the city's core. Downtown as a whole lost about 765 jobs but gained twice that number of residents. It also registered a significant drop in office vacancies.

But the west side stands out as the only area that gained jobs, and it also added parking, housing and retail.

"It's clear to me that so many projects are now under way on the west side that the momentum will just continue apace," said Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm unconnected with the report. "The data are clear: There is progress."

The Downtown Partnership's report measures key signs of health, including employment, investment and office vacancies, from July 2003 through August 2004. Past reports have called for major initiatives to combat problems - such as too little parking and too many outdated office buildings - but this time the nonprofit simply recommends a continuation of smaller-scale efforts: deterring aggressive panhandling, attracting more retail, improving mass transit.

"The question is no longer `is downtown going to survive,' because it's absolutely surviving if not thriving," said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the group, which runs programs and advocates for downtown. "The focus now is on quality of life."

In its report, the nonprofit defines downtown as an area roughly bounded by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the west, Interstate 83 on the east with a jag outward to Central Avenue, Key Highway on the south and North Avenue on the north. That includes the west side, the waterfront as far as Harbor East, Mount Vernon and the central business district, which the Downtown Partnership has renamed City Center because more and more residents are moving into the corporate core.

Living downtown

The increase in housing and people throughout downtown is a key reason, Fowler said, why he judges the area to be more vital even though jobs continued to decline.

There were 7,500 people living downtown last summer, up 1,500 from a year earlier. By the end of this year their numbers are expected to rise to 10,000 - double the population in 1999.

The new residents since 1999 earn an average of $54,000, and 65 percent of them came from outside the city, according to the report.

"Downtown's diversifying and transforming itself into a 24-hour neighborhood," Fowler said.

More residents should make it easier for the city to get more retail. The Downtown Partnership, which tracked retail for the first time in this report, estimates that the area had more than 2 million square feet of retail space between summer 2003 and summer 2004. Nearly a third of that - 650,000 square feet - was available to lease, though a fair bit was either under construction or nearing construction.

The group traveled to a retailing conference in New York at the end of the year to market this space and the growing downtown population to national chains.

"I think we're about to cross the threshold into more and higher-quality retail ... the kind of stuff there hasn't been in downtown Baltimore for a long time - maybe ever," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp.

Developers' conversions of old offices to new apartments and condos have also helped the office market: Downtown's vacancy rate was 14.4 percent between summer 2003 and summer 2004, compared with 18.5 percent the year before.

Downtown continues to struggle to hold onto its employment base, though it's not losing jobs as fast as it once did. The 765 lost jobs amounted to a drop of 0.9 percent. The 12 months before, employment dropped by 2.9 percent.

Most of the job loss came from white-collar businesses, particularly finance and insurance companies. Insurance firm Euler Hermes ACI moved to the suburbs. So did the American Urological Association and logistics company John S. Connor Inc.

But a handful of large firms announced that they were staying, including mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price Group Inc., which extended its Pratt Street lease until 2017 last year after considering whether to move all operations to its Owings Mills campus.

"There is a strong preference among a number of the employees who work downtown ... to remain," said George A. Roche, Price's chairman and president, noting that new parking garages have eased the crunch for space that had pushed some firms out in years past. "There is a continuing improvement in the city."

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