Condo plan is OK'd by city

Switch from apartments made to meet demand

36 units will cost below-market

July 29, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

An upscale residential project originally conceived as apartments on a former lumber yard site is now converting to condominiums after receiving a green light from the Annapolis planning commission with virtually no opposition.

The switch for Westbridge Village, an already-approved 300-unit complex in mid-construction at West Street and Chinquapin Round Road, is in step with regional, national and urban trends, housing experts say.

"Market-rate condos are worth the time and the effort to make conversions like this during construction," said John McIlwain, a senior housing fellow at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.

"They're priced for people whose incomes are higher," he added.

The change comes as developers are building hundreds of condominiums at both the site of the former Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis and at the $200 million Park Place project at West Street and Spa Road.

Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and other officials supported the switch at Westbridge Village, noting that the residential-retail complex will increase homeownership and expand the state capital's stock of moderate-income housing.

"Our home ownership is the second-lowest in the state," Moyer said. "And we are now developing the criteria for the work force housing component."

Under city law, the developers of Woodbridge must offer 12 percent of the condominiums, or 36, to buyers at below-market rates. Under the previous apartment plan, the builders were required to offer just 18 moderately priced units.

"This brings additional homeownership opportunities for people shut out of this housing market," said Jon Arason, the Annapolis planning director. "And those units will be significantly less expensive."

The city is setting up a process for determining who qualifies for the 36 moderately priced condominiums. The city's Web site will post details next month, Arason said.

J. Stephen Muller, president of Union Realty in Washington, a project partner, said the shift to condos was a straightforward market decision.

"We looked at the market carefully, and there seems to be a large appetite for ownership, given the low interest rates," Muller said.

Durant Bell, a development manager for Wood Partners in Vienna, Va., is supervising the on-site construction, due to be completed next summer. The development team declined to give sales prices for the one-, two- and three-bedroom units, which were to rent for $1,400 a month and up.

Expectations are that "empty nesters," young professionals working in Baltimore and Annapolis, and second-home buyers are the likely pool of buyers in a booming market, Bell said.

"It's harder to afford a house, so trends point toward smaller townhomes and condominiums, in places with some density, particularly over the last three years when single-family homes got so expensive," Bell said.

Experts say a family can generally afford a house priced at three times its annual income. The median family income in Anne Arundel is about $70,000, but the average home price is almost $300,000, more than four times that. That poses a challenge for police officers and firefighters seeking to live here.

Arason, the city planning director, observed that two Annapolis apartment complexes, Spa Cove and Chesapeake Apartments, are also converting to condominiums.

Arason said he had no objection to the midstream switch, particularly because the building plan remains the same: "From a land-use perspective, there's really no difference."

Moyer has put revitalizing the West Street corridor high on her agenda.

Mixed-use projects like Westbridge Village, the mayor often says, will help attract people to live closer to the city center and West Street, its "historic gateway."

McIlwain, the housing expert, said the change of plan brings several economic effects.

"From the community point of view, there's more tax revenue and homeownership," he said. Yet, he added, "There is a decline in affordability, since condos tend to serve older and high-income people."

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