Catholic Relief is close to lease deal

Agency to use most of Stewart's building for larger headquarters

July 22, 2005|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Catholic Relief Services is close to signing a lease to move to the former Stewart's department store in a deal that would bring more than 300 workers to the heart of the city's old retail district.

Completing the deal would cap a lengthy search for larger quarters for the international relief arm of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.

The agency has been negotiating with the Stewart building's owner, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, to lease most of the redeveloped but still vacant Stewart's building except for the first-floor retail space. It would lease 180,000 square feet of a total of about 200,000 square feet.

"It's very much on track," said David Piraino, vice president for human resources at the Catholic agency. "It's moving ahead, and we anticipate being able to sign a lease in the not-too-distant future. We'd hope by at the latest next summer to have some people in the building."

CRS plans to sell its current building a block and half away at 209 W. Fayette St. once the move is complete, Piraino said.

Joel Weingarden, the Weinberg Foundation's chief real estate official, was out of town yesterday and could not be reached.

The agency now employs about 326 people downtown and expects to grow to about 400 at its new offices in the center of the city's rebounding west side.

"Employment at Howard and Lexington streets would be very welcome," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of nonprofit Westside Renaissance Inc. "It's a part of the mixed-use plan for the area to have an employment base and residential development and retail development. So it would be a very welcome addition."

CRS anticipates adding employees as the emergency aid agency expands its work in responding to HIV and AIDs crises in Africa and elsewhere, Piraino said.

Expanding staff

The agency, which was active in providing relief after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunamis in December, will also be expanding fundraising staff to bolster work in the areas of health, peace building and conflict resolution, Piraino said.

The west-side renewal effort is being anchored by the revitalized Hippodrome Theatre, which reopened last year and Bank of America's Centerpoint retail and residential project.

New residents have been leasing apartments and moving in to projects near the Stewart's building, including the Atrium on Howard Street and Centerpoint, which has leased about 90 percent of its nearly 400 apartments in the past year, Kreitner said.

And more new residences are on the way, including the Camden Court project under construction at Howard and Lombard streets, which is also under construction and leasing.

With all of that activity, "having [Catholic Relief] at that location would be great for Lexington Street and for future quality retail along Lexington, which would have a whole bunch of customers right there who might want to live in some of the new apartments," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp, the city's quasi-public development agency.

Catholic Relief Services has become cramped in its current 85,000-square-foot headquarters, which the agency bought when it moved its headquarters to Baltimore in 1989, Piraino said.

In April 2002, the agency considered building a new headquarters on a part of 40 wooded acres owned by the Oblate Sisters of Providence in Catonsville. The charity reconsidered leaving the city after Mayor Martin O'Malley intervened and city officials began showing the agency alternate sites.

Part of hotel plan

For more than a year, the agency planned to have its new headquarters built as part of Baltimore's convention headquarters hotel, planned for a site just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But the Catholic agency withdrew from that development, saying it needed space sooner than the hotel complex could be built.

The agency then launched a search to buy a building, but decided it would be willing to lease because the Weinberg Foundation's bylaws prohibit the sale of the Stewart's building.

"We love the building. It's a beautiful building, and it meets our needs, not only for today," said Piraino.

Staying on the west side will be a plus because it won't require much of a change in commuting for employees, he said.

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