State Center plan on track

Despite economy, developers push ahead on midtown project

May 07, 2008|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN REPORTER

The state of Maryland and a team of private developers are pushing ahead with an ambitious $1.6 billion redevelopment of the state's aging 28-acre midtown Baltimore office complex, planning to cluster new offices, apartments, condos and shops around existing mass transit and a new central plaza.

Despite an economic slowdown that has stalled many big-city projects, state officials and developers said yesterday that they hoped to start construction of a new State Center by 2010.

State officials hope the redevelopment, to take place over a decade, will become a model for transit-oriented development. They plan to keep at least the existing 3,500 state employees based there and expect the proximity of the existing subway and light rail stops to attract private office tenants, residents and shoppers.

"Our hope is that State Center will become the place to be," said Michael A. Gaines Sr., assistant secretary in the state's Department of General Services. "Part of the overall plan is to make this a more walkable, pedestrian-friendly, connected area."

A master plan totaling 6 million square feet, to be presented tomorrow to a city design panel, includes 2 million square feet of office space, 1,200 market-rate and affordable residences and about 250,000 square feet of restaurants, shops and, possibly, a supermarket.

The dozen state agencies that currently occupy four state-owned buildings would become a key anchor, filling about three-quarters of the office space.

The project would preserve some or all of the state-owned office buildings - possibly converting one or two for housing and other uses - and add eight new mixed-use buildings on existing parking lots. The state would own or lease the new or renovated space for its workers, employed by a dozen agencies. Gaines said no decision has yet been made about the ownership structure of the property.

The developers hope to update 1950s-era buildings that were built for a single use and closed off to streets that didn't encourage strolling or gathering, said Caroline Moore, the project manager for Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, the lead developer. McCormack Baron Salazar of St. Louis will be a co-developer, with primary responsibility for developing the mixed-income housing. The team also includes Doracon Development, which has worked with Struever Bros in Harbor East.

"Everything you see here will not be here," Moore said during a site visit yesterday, pointing out uninviting buildings and streets. She said she hopes the project will become a "town center" for nearby neighborhoods, including Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, Upton, McCulloh Homes and Seton Hill. "Where do you have 28 acres with the state as an anchor? This is a chance of a lifetime."

At least one of the buildings, 201 W. Preston, would get a new "skin." Shops would open in ground-floor space along Preston Street, making it a retail corridor. And most buildings would have have a mix of uses to help enliven the area beyond office hours, she said. A plaza in the center of a redesigned Preston Street would have a building to encompass the existing metro station and include a restaurant, shops and a bicycle depot. Ideas for the state-owned 5th Regiment Armory include using it as an athletic center and day care or as a sound studio for the film industry.

Karl Schlachter, a senior vice president for McCormack Baron Salazar, said 60 percent of the housing would be rental apartments, with 40 percent of those affordable to families earning less than 60 percent of area median income. About 20 percent of the for-sale condos would be affordable, he said. He said his firm has been building mixed-income communities for three decades and has had huge demand in other parts of the country for residences built near transit.

"People can unshackle themselves from their car, and insurance and gas and spend it on things more important to them," he said. "We want to have a smooth mix of incomes and affordability throughout the development. We believe in it, especially in urban cores with mass transit, to create an inclusive community representative of the neighborhoods that surround it. There's a wide variety in terms of income, race and socioeconomic, and now State Center is a barrier keeping those neighborhoods apart."

Tomorrow's presentation before the city's Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel represents a first step in seeking the city zoning to enable the mix of uses.

The state and the developers have spent more than a year in more than a dozen meetings with representatives of nine nearby communities to come up with a master plan, with input from some 500 people.

Schlachter said the climate for financing for the project is difficult but not impossible, and that the project should benefit from a strong development team and the state's commitment to keeping its agencies there.

At the site yesterday, Gaines displayed renderings of the redeveloped State Center outside 301 W. Preston St., one of the buildings likely to be converted for housing. The renderings drew the attention of curious office workers coming in and out of the building. One man took pictures with his cell phone.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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