Idling plan for downtown condos gets in gear, but parking is another matter

Merging of 3 buildings signals a shift in market

August 25, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

A long-stalled project that would bring retail and as many as 93 condominiums to a prime downtown corner caught a green light this week despite worries about where those new homeowners would park.

Baltimore's zoning board approved One East Redwood, an elaborate melding of three radically different buildings at South Charles and Redwood streets.

First conceived as apartments, the $15 million development joins a wave of condos planned for the central business district, a once office-only zone that has proven its popularity as a rental location.

"There's a movement back into towns and cities. There's a major shift," said Crispin Etherington, president of Ashbourne Properties, which is developing the site with Thames Street Capital Group. "What we're going after is ... the person who would rent but now can buy."

Etherington said his one- and two-bedroom units would start in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.

Downtown boosters say the fact that people want to own center city property, not just rent it, demonstrates the maturing of the market.

Robert Aydukovic, Downtown Partnership's vice president of economic development, says that in the past five years, downtown Baltimore's housing stock has doubled - but nearly all of it came in the form of new apartments.

That's changing as a swath of condos in the pipeline challenges the conventional wisdom that Baltimore is not a condo kind of town. Buyers' enthusiasm for the first condo projects to hit the market - including the pricey Spinnaker Bay in Harbor East and the more moderate Breco Building near City Hall - shows the depth of the demand, Aydukovic said.

`Very healthy direction'

The shift to homeownership, which would infuse downtown's still largely deserted streets with more invested residents, could be particularly beneficial for the center city, he said.

It's "a more engaged audience about what happens in and around downtown," Aydukovic said. "It's a very healthy direction for the market to take."

Nearly two years ago, Etherington was preparing to build One East Redwood as a 58-unit apartment building. He had scaled what seemed to be the project's biggest hurdle: getting the architecturally unorthodox plans past the city's design review board.

The plan combines three diverse buildings, 15, 17 and 19 S. Charles St. - all vacant except for ground-floor businesses that include a gift store, a hair salon and a Subway sandwich shop.

The corner building, 15, is historic and will be preserved. The five-story, red-brick structure was built as a warehouse just after the Great Fire of 1904 by the same architect who designed Baltimore's courthouse.

The thin, six-story building next to it will be demolished. And the last building, which is seven stories tall, will stay, but its facade will be stripped away, according to the project's architect, Walter Schamu of Schamu Machowski Greco.

A structure with balconies and lots of windows is to replace 17, build onto what's left of 19 and blend seamlessly with 15. Though the historic half is five stories tall and the new section will rise to 11 stories, the floors of both buildings will align.

In the two years that Etherington has had the project on hold, the basic design hasn't changed, even though he could build 93 units instead of 58.

Scarcity of parking

The main holdup, he said, is painful negotiations over where his future residents will park.

Though the city generally requires developments to provide about one parking space for every four residential units, One East Redwood will have no parking.

The zoning board granted Etherington a waiver from the rule, because he said he has persuaded nearby garages to lease him spots month to month.

But knowing homeowners would want something more permanent, the developer is negotiating with the owners of 25 S. Charles St., which has a garage that could connect directly with his development.

As more developers look to redevelop downtown sites into housing, the parking situation is problematic. Though urban planners, including Baltimore Planning Director Otis Rolley III, want people to move to the center city and leave their cars behind, people argue that neither Baltimore's residents nor its public transportation system is ready for that.

"It's a critical issue, particularly if you're moving to ownership," says Rebecca Gagalis, Charles Street Development Corp.'s executive director. "They want the convenience."

Even though the developers are targeting people who might be able to walk to work, and even though downtown's first grocery story, a Super Fresh, is set to open two blocks north of the condos, the developers figure the project will live or die depending on what parking they're able to secure.

"We'll find our tenants parking," Etherington's attorney, Stanley Fine, told the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals. "We're not going to be able to sell the units if we don't."

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