Sale of eight buildings in the 300 block of N. Howard St. affects an area viewed as a bridge to redevelopment to the north

Key auction on west side


Baltimore's west side redevelopment could spread farther along Howard Street, where two key property owners are preparing to sell eight buildings that have sat largely vacant for years.

A May 25 auction could pave the way for revitalization of nearly half the 300 block of North Howard Street and, city officials hope, help bridge blocks to the north where more redevelopment of housing and shops is planned or expected over the next few years.

The sale, to be held at the buildings at North Howard and Saratoga streets, will include six properties owned by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and two owned by the estate of Alan Berman. Some of the buildings have retailers operating on the first floors, but most are entirely or mostly vacant.

"Nothing has really happened on that block because the major property owners haven't done anything," said Paul Cooper, a vice president of Alex Cooper Auctioneers Inc., which is handling the auction. "The properties have been tied up in the same ownership for many, many years and are finally on the market. This is what people have been waiting for."

The city is in the midst of a seven-year-old public-private effort to revitalize downtown's west side into a residential neighborhood with 2,000 market rate apartments and condos as well as additional shops and expanded cultural attractions.

Much of the redevelopment on Howard Street has occurred south of the 300 block, including the $80 million Centerpoint mixed-use project with 394 apartments; the conversion of the former Stewart's department store into offices, and conversion of the former Hecht's department store into the 173-apartment Atrium at Market Center.

Developer Wendy Blair plans to start construction this summer on St. James Place, a conversion of vacant, historic buildings in the 400 block of North Howard into some 24 apartments and street-level retail, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency.

Once that project gets under way, the city plans to request developer bids to redevelop the historic Mayfair Theater and two buildings to the south in the 500 block, possibly for retail and office, Brodie said yesterday.

Another developer has purchased the former Planned Parenthood building in the 600 block and wants to convert it to housing, he said.

He said he is optimistic that buyers will step in to renovate the historic buildings inn the 300 block.

"To see visible improvement in the 300 block would be a positive sign and a bridge from the successful enterprises to the south to where we're heading up north," Brodie said. "It's a good sign for the west side. The Weinberg foundation did a beautiful job of renovating the former Stewart's department store building, but that was several years ago.

"If they've concluded they can't rehabilitate these buildings themselves, then I hope someone will appear at the auction who can buy the buildings from the foundation and go ahead and renovate them in the way that we are encouraging renovation as well as new construction on the west side."

The properties offered for sale in the 300 block offer a rare chance to acquire multiple, adjoining properties all at once, Cooper said. All are being sold individually, and so far, potential investors have inquired about individual buildings, he said.

"It's difficult to acquire that many properties at one time short of doing condemnations," Cooper said. "Many times it takes a long time and your dealing with many different property owners."

Susan B. Anderson, a vice president with the H&R Retail real estate brokerage, said the buildings would be well-suited for conversion to upper-floor housing at a time when demand for housing downtown is hot. But additional redevelopment in the area needs to happen to attract retailers, especially chains, to the ground-level spots, she said.

"Retailers never want to be the first ones; they do not have pioneering spirits," she said.

The Weinberg-owned buildings include a three-story building at the northwest corner of Howard and Saratoga streets, with three first-floor retailers leasing space and vacant upper floors.

Another property is a six-story building at the northeast corner of Howard and Saratoga, with an apparel retailer leasing the first floor and vacant upper levels. The foundation's four other buildings, ranging from one to four stories, are all vacant, including 304, 305-07, 306-10 and 317-19.

The foundation acquired the properties more than 25 years ago and held them, intending to eventually redevelop them with apartments over first-floor shops, said Joel Winegarden, the foundation's vice president of real estate. But the foundation has recently shifted direction of its real estate activities.

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