Developers scale back towering condo plans

Timing feared wrong for 60-story skyscrapers

May 11, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,Sun reporter

Condo jitters are rippling through major downtown Baltimore projects on the drawing boards.

A developer planning twin towers that could be the tallest in Baltimore presented designs for the first phase yesterday - a garage with ground-floor retail - but said the towers themselves will have to wait until the condo market picks back up.

Richard W. Naing of RWN Development Group, which is handling the Guilford Avenue project, said he thinks the time wouldn't be ripe to start construction until the many condos in the pipeline have had a chance to sell and regional job growth from the military base restructuring revs up. That could be three to four years, he said.

Meanwhile, his key competition - two other companies planning downtown skyscrapers - said yesterday that they've pulled back on the number of condos they plan to build. New York-based UrbanAmerica now says its proposed Pratt Street building might have 250 condos and 300 hotel rooms, rather than vice versa. Philadelphia-based ARCWheeler, taking another look at plans for its Light Street skyscraper, thinks it will keep the loft and condo component below 200 units instead of nearly 300.

Richmond S. McCoy, president and chief executive of UrbanAmerica, said he remains optimistic because Baltimore's housing market is "outperforming most markets."

But Naing thinks it's not a good time to be selling or building condos.

"It's not just the market, it's also the perception," he said. "Right now the perception is very negative - you couldn't even get financing if you wanted to."

RWN Development, which worked for years in Washington before branching out to Baltimore, said it has not pushed back its timetable. Home sales were already slowing drastically as the company assembled land last year.

It paid about $21 million for three properties: the Saratoga Court Apartments at Saratoga Street and Guilford Avenue, which it plans to keep; the Guilford Avenue parking garage next door; and the Hammerjacks building next to that. It plans to pull down the garage and Hammerjacks.

Naing had said he intended to build two 60-story towers with a mix of condos and apartments. Yesterday he said the skyscrapers might be different heights - one shorter than 60 stories, one taller - and include a hotel.

UrbanAmerica said yesterday that its skyscraper could be as tall as 50 stories, while ARCWheeler said its building would probably have about 55 floors - at a height of between 650 feet and 750 feet.

The Legg Mason building on Light Street is currently Baltimore's tallest, at 35 stories and about 530 feet.

UrbanAmerica, which had planned to start work this year, said it could break ground on its project, between South and Commerce streets, in the first few months of next year.

ARCWheeler thinks groundbreaking on its 2-acre site next to the Hyatt Regency might be a year away, but it needs to settle on the best mix of uses first.

"It's been adjusted to accommodate the shifting market," said John Voneiff, an ARCWheeler partner, noting that the company is considering whether to include office space and more than triple the parking. "It's a big project, and we want it to be right. ... We want a real vertical community."

Baltimore has fewer condo units being actively marketed now than it did a year ago, in part because several projects were dropped, said William Rich, director of the condominium practice at real estate information company Delta Associates in Alexandria, Va. Even so, sales have slowed so much that it would take more than four years to sell them all at the current pace, compared with less than two years this time in 2006, he said.

"If they all were to come online now," Rich said of the skyscraper projects, "that wouldn't bode well."

Naing, who this week bought the Brexton building in Mount Vernon with plans to turn it into a boutique hotel, said he hopes to begin work on the first phase of the Guilford project around August. The 660-space garage would include about 9,000 square feet of retail.

His team presented those plans to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel yesterday. The most notable element was a "green screen" on the Guilford side of the garage's fa?ade that would have plants twining up and down a metal trellis.

The panel thought the design needed more work in light of the tower that Naing expects to put on top of it one day.

"It's going to be a squat little entrance to a major building," panel member Gary Bowden said.

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