Venable moving to tower on Pratt St.

Law firm's relocation reflects eastward shift of city financial district

June 22, 2007|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,sun reporter

Venable LLP will leave its Charles Center offices of nearly four decades for a new home at the eastern end of the Inner Harbor, continuing a shift from downtown's traditional financial district to newer buildings along the city's waterfront.

The 450-person law firm will move in the spring to 750 E. Pratt St., where it will occupy nearly half the 18-story tower. The 150,000 square feet it will occupy has been vacant since the building opened in 2002.

Venable, which is expanding, has been seeking larger and more modern quarters for about a year, Mike Baader, partner-in-charge of Venable's Baltimore office, said yesterday.

The firm looked into availability of space in the Baltimore region but felt strongly about staying in the city, and was attracted to an area companies view as the new epicenter of the business district, Baader said.

"We're definitely committed to the city," Baader said. "The center of the business activity has moved east and down around Pratt Street corridor with everything that is extending to Fells Point and Canton. This will be more central to be in the middle of all that.

"It's an exciting time for Baltimore with the life sciences parks coming out of the ground at the University of Maryland and Hopkins. We think downtown is important for civic purposes as well."

One of the most visible signs of the eastward-shifting business district has been the recent announcement by money manager Legg Mason Inc. that it will move from 100 Light St,, the tallest building in the city and the first skyscraper in the Inner Harbor, to a proposed office tower in the city's Harbor East community east of the Inner Harbor.

Venable, long one of Baltimore's biggest and most influential firms, in recent years shifted its formal headquarters to Washington but kept a major presence at the 21-story Mercantile Bank and Trust Building at 2 Hopkins Plaza, where it has been located since 1970.

The firm renewed its lease, currently for 125,000 square feet, five years ago but had an option to buy out its lease prior to its expiration in 2011.

Last month, the building's former owner, Norfolk, Va.-based Harbor Group International LLC, announced that it had sold the Mercantile building, along with the W.R. Grace Building at 10 E. Baltimore St., to USA Realty Fund for $78.9 million,.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said yesterday that the economic development agency has had discussions with Venable leadership over the past several years and felt it was important that the city retain the law firm.

"They have a great commitment to this city," Brodie said.

Venable considered relocating to vacant space in the Alex. Brown Building at 1 South St., and also looked into proposed office tower projects around the Inner Harbor, but wanted to make a move before those would be completed.

Baader said the 750 E. Pratt site, where Constellation Energy Group is also a major tenant, emerged as a clear choice.

"Frankly, there are not a lot of buildings downtown that can accommodate the firm," he said. Plus, he said, the building is owned by longtime Venable client Willard Hackerman, head of construction firm Whiting- Turner Contracting Co., which developed the tower for $60 million. The building has a gym, a conference center and a pedestrian bridge to the Harbor Park Garage.

The firm also liked the ability to design never-before-used space to fit the needs of a growing law firm, with features planned such as an outdoor terrace, employee cafe and employee lounge. It expects to add 40 to 50 employees within a year of relocating.

"The firm's roots are in Baltimore," Venable Chairman Jim Shea said in a statement. "The continued success and growth of the Baltimore office is an integral part of our strategic plan."

Davis Carter Scott, of Vienna, Va., a firm specializing in office design for law firms, will design the new space. K&G Project Management of Washington will be the firm's project manager, and Whiting-Turner will be lead contractor.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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