A Baltimore developer is proposing a multimillion-dollar land swap: If the city gives him an outdated senior center in Mount Vernon, he'll replace it and build hundreds of studio apartments on the site.
Howard Chambers wants to build a 600-unit apartment/condominium building on the site of the Waxter Center, a 34-year-old complex where seniors take classes, exercise and get checkups. If he gets the property, valued at just over $3 million, Chambers would build an $8 million senior center on what is now the center's parking lot.
"I don't know if you can find a better win, win, win," Chambers said. "We think we have a very good proposal that works for everybody."
When it was new in the 1970s, experts lavished praise on the Waxter, at 1000 Cathedral St., then a cutting-edge institution where the elderly could socialize, see physicians, keep learning -- even swim.
But now officials say the building needs millions of dollars' worth of repairs and renovations. The city's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education had been trying to raise money for about five years when Chambers floated his proposal.
The idea of getting a new center instead of struggling to pay for spot fixes intrigues John P. Stewart, the commission's executive director.
Chambers has offered to build the seniors an energy-efficient center with a pool, a gym, classrooms -- modern versions of everything they have now -- plus a garden and a cafe.
"It would offer the seniors we serve an incredible opportunity to walk into a state-of-the-art facility that we are in no position to fund right now," Stewart said. "This might be a really good opportunity for the city."
Chambers wants the commission to give him the approximately $2 million it has raised for Waxter renovations to contribute to his construction costs.
After Chambers proposed the swap, the Baltimore Development Corp. put out a call for other ideas for the site.
Two other firms expressed interest, including Washington-based RWN Development, the company that wants to build a 60-story tower on the site of the Terminal Warehouse on Guilford Avenue near the downtown end of the Jones Falls Expressway.
The BDC seemed to tailor its request for proposals to match Chambers' plan, looking for developers interested in building both a high-density project and a new Waxter Center in exchange for the land.
"The facility should be constructed at no cost to the city or [the commission on aging]," the city's ad read. "In exchange the city is prepared to contemplate a fee-simple, no-cost transfer of the current city-owned land."
RWN officials did not return calls this week.
Stewart said a committee is reviewing the three proposals. Such a deal would eventually need the blessing of the City Council and Baltimore's Board of Estimates.
Meanwhile, council members have asked for a report on the condition of the Waxter Center and the feasibility of renovating it.
Chambers began thinking about the Waxter site last year after another project he sought in Mount Vernon fell through. He had wanted to raze four historic carriage houses on Morton Street to build condominiums, but preservationists protested the destruction of the protected buildings.
When he started looking into available nonhistoric properties in the area, Chambers heard of the Waxter renovation campaign.
"That's what got me started thinking about what we could do," he said. "I knew Mount Vernon didn't want that building there for another 20 to 50 years."
Along with two European developers, Chambers wants to build very small apartments geared toward young people. With the number of schools around Mount Vernon -- the Maryland Institute College of Art, the Peabody Conservatory, the University of Baltimore -- Chambers thinks there's a market for the 375-square-foot studios. He'd rent half of them for about $800 a month and sell the rest for $140,000 to $150,000.
The commission on aging initially had hoped that some of the units could be reserved for seniors, but Chambers said that isn't possible. "An incubator for future residents in the city, that's sort of the concept," he said.
There would be retail space on the ground floor and a garage for about 350 cars. Chambers would incorporate an adjacent historic home into the plan, using it for senior center offices. The building, which Chambers said would be about 14 stories, would be designed to accommodate Mount Vernon's new height rules.
Though a little wary of how the hundreds of apartments might affect parking in the neighborhood, Mount Vernon community activists generally like Chambers' idea.
"It's good preservation, it's good land use, it will add density and parking -- what's not to love?" said Mount Vernon Belvedere Association Vice President R. Paul Warren. "It makes a lot of sense."
Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., whose district includes Mount Vernon, said he's eager to see the proposals for the site.
"The Waxter Center needs to be updated or completely refurbished to accommodate our seniors," he said. "But in terms of the proposal, I need to look at it. The devil's in the details."
A key part of the plan, Stewart said, is that senior center services would not be interrupted. Chambers would not raze the old center to start building the apartments until the new center is complete.
The Waxter Center, with 3,000 members, averages about 185 visitors a day.
"My object is to make sure we get the best deal for the older adults we serve," Stewart said. "We would not disenfranchise anyone."