Sale of old brewery OK'd

$35 million conversion project planned

Sun follow-up

May 17, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

City officials approved yesterday the sale of the American Brewery site -- long an eyesore and symbol of a dilapidated East Baltimore neighborhood -- whose redevelopment is expected to help spark a revival.

The $5,000 deal turns the property over to a partnership between the Gotham Development of Washington and Struever Brothers, Eccles and Rouse, a Baltimore-based company that is one of the city's premier developers.

The companies intend to invest more than $35 million to convert the hulking, five-story former brewery into office space for Humanim Inc., a nonprofit social services agency based in Columbia.

The developers also propose using the adjacent bottling plant for retail, office and warehouse space. They will rely heavily on federal and state tax credit programs for the hefty investment.

The city's Board of Estimates voted unanimously to sell the 2-acre site at 1701 N. Gay St., a property that anchored the Broadway East community more than a century ago and has been vacant and owned by the city for 30 years.

The blocks around the brewery were the subject of a series in The Sun last year that depicted a community that had lost 60 percent of its population.

Mayor Sheila Dixon voted for the deal, which was agreed to in concept before she took office in January.

Gotham Development was among four Washington companies that headlined a fundraiser last month at the Ellington apartments on U Street NW. Hosts paid $4,000 to $6,000, according to an invitation, sponsors paid $2,500, and guests paid $500.

Joe Louis Ruffin of Gotham Development is on the mayor's Blue Ribbon Committee on Property Tax Reform.

"The fact that Gotham is supporting the mayor's political campaign should in no way keep her from voting for and supporting these really positive community development projects," said Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Dixon.

"She is very excited about this partnership between Gotham and Struever Brothers and their work with Humanim, and believes that this development project for Broadway East is going to be one of the anchors that really helps revitalize this community."

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who is running against Dixon in this year's race for mayor, said the vote "highlights the need for procurement reform."

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause in Washington, said the vote illustrates a system that forces public officials to rely on developers to raise money for their re-election.

"This is what happens when we have privately funded campaigns," she said. "This is one reason why we are pushing and have pushed hard, unsuccessfully, for public financing of campaigns."

"This happens every day. This is how the system works."

Mitchell said he would soon unveil as part of his platform a proposal for procurement reform that would restrict campaign contributions to officials from those doing business with the city.

"We want to open up City Hall to make it more transparent," Mitchell said.

Groundbreaking for the redevelopment project is expected this summer.

Humanim, which provides social services to the disabled, will own the brewery after it is redeveloped. The nonprofit intends to move 250 of its employees into the building and hire 60 new employees.

Bringing new jobs into the depressed neighborhood was a benefit noted by city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano at yesterday's meeting.

"I think the American Brewery project is a historic opportunity for an infusion of capital in that neighborhood," Graziano said. "There will be a major transformation of that site. It is an indication of commitment to this neighborhood, and I think it will be a harbinger of many good things to come."

Some community residents are hopeful.

"Anything to upgrade," said Doris Booker, 68, who has lived in the community since 1952. "Why let it sit for all those years and just deteriorate, which it has? I hope they develop" the former Bugle laundry building too, she said. "They need to develop that. It would make a nice supermarket."

The former commercial laundry, Bugle Rental Services, around the corner from the brewery, was sold to a Northern Virginia investor this year.

Other new businesses have taken steps to foreclose on properties, and the city has moved to acquire 200 abandoned properties near the brewery and demolish a block of mostly vacant buildings.

Paul Sobwick, an auctioneer with Auction Brokers who has presided over auctions in the area, was pleased last year when a rental property attracted about half a dozen bidders in an auction.

But he said yesterday that any momentum he might have thought was building has gone nowhere.

"Unfortunately, we have not been selling much over there," he said. "It's what the market has done to Baltimore. Investors switched from rehabbing and reselling to buying properties that are already rehabbed.

"That area in particular has always been a tough area for us to sell in. It's just not a desirable area. But now that the brewery thing is happening again, you might see a swing again. Hopefully."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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