Building's sale may inspire new lease on west-side life

Developers eager to see Abell property rehabbed

April 10, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

A once-grand building, whose deteriorating facade was symbolic of people's doubts in Baltimore's west-side redevelopment efforts, is finally poised for restoration.

A developer has purchased the long-neglected Abell Building, an architectural stunner that, despite sitting across the street from the renovated Hippodrome Theatre and the multimillion-dollar Centerpoint retail and residential complex, has withered as the neighborhood prospered.

PMC Property Group, a developer known for converting old buildings into apartments in cities along the East Coast, has purchased the Abell for $1.3 million from Rockville-based David & Annie Abrams Realty.

Steven Bloom, the company's Baltimore partner, said PMC plans to put retail, such as restaurants or a coffee shop, on the first level of the five-story building and 35 to 40 apartments or condominiums upstairs. PMC hopes to finish the project within a year.

"I've been looking at the Abell Building for a few years and noticed it wasn't getting done while everything else was getting done around it," Bloom said. "It was just crying for attention."

The Abell's sale and impending redevelopment is gratifying for west-side boosters and a relief for business leaders who had crossed their fingers last year when the Hippodrome reopened, hoping it would catalyze more rehab projects in the area.

A dubious sight

When the sparkling new theater seemingly couldn't jump-start the redevelopment of the building right across the street, doubts mounted as to what effect it could have on the rest of the neighborhood.

Even as theatergoers flocked to Eutaw Street for The Producers and Hairspray, tree-like weeds sprouted through the Abell's upper-level windows and water from burst pipes gushed and pooled in the basement.

"It just created an air of uncertainly," said Ron Kreitner, executive director of West Side Renaissance. "It failed to move forward and became more and more of an eyesore and a detriment."

"To walk out of the Hippodrome and see that building was a huge shame," said J. Kirby Fowler Jr., president of the Downtown Partnership.

But, Fowler added, the planned renovation renews his confidence in the block and the area.

"It's a new day for the Abell Building," Fowler said, "and it's going to accelerate redevelopment of the west side."

Arunah S. Abell, founder of The Sun, commissioned George A. Frederick, the architect for Baltimore's City Hall, to design the building in the mid-1870s. Abell built the project speculatively, hoping to lure companies involved in the garment industry.

Over its more than 130 years, an array of tenants have called the Abell home. They include, according to the book Baltimore's Cast-Iron Buildings and Architectural Ironwork, a cigar business, a saddle and harness maker, a confectionery, a printer and scores of insurance brokers.

Despite extreme deterioration, the building's intricate brickwork, white marble trim and arched windows still convey the grandeur of a time gone by. According to The Architecture of Baltimore, the Abell, which covers an entire block, is the "finest surviving warehouse from the period."

`Many false starts'

The family of Michael H. Abrams has owned the Abell since 1957. It has been vacant since the last clothing tenant packed up a few years ago. The Abrams family could not be reached for comment.

In 1997, hoping to spur residential development downtown, the city offered a package of incentives tied to converting various properties - the Abell among them - into apartments.

The incentives apparently weren't enticement enough. In 2002, despite Abrams' promises to renovate, business leaders began pressuring the city to condemn the property and seize it, figuring if the owner wouldn't fix it, someone should.

"It's been frustrating," Fowler said. "There had been many false starts."

The new developer's track record, however, seems to be setting people's minds at ease.

PMC has earned a reputation renovating old buildings in a handful of Eastern states but primarily in Philadelphia - the company used to be called Philadelphia Management Co.

Locally, PMC has redeveloped the Dulaney Valley Apartments, a 256-unit garden apartment complex in Towson, and is refurbishing the former National Enamel & Stamping Co. factory in South Baltimore into 190 apartments.

The company finances its projects with Lubert-Adler, a real estate private equity firm. It will use no city money to buy the Abell, only the federal and state historic tax credits that developers who renovate historic properties to certain specifications are eligible for, Bloom said.

Those credentials impress Walter D. Pinkard Jr., chairman of the Hippodrome Foundation board of directors.

"Buying is one thing," Pinkard said. "They have a capital partner to make things happen. They have the cash."

Other west-side businesses, small and large, are eager to see the Abell saved.

Hippodrome Hatters owner Judy Boulmetis is one of them.

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