Trading land for learning

BCCC sees harbor campus as a source of revenue

July 09, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporter

Plans by Baltimore City Community College to open its 2.2-acre Inner Harbor campus to development would provide a shot in the arm to moribund Lombard Street while bringing the college millions of dollars to expand its offerings, city and BCCC officials said yesterday.

The college is seeking proposals from developers interested in building on the site. Officials expect the college's Bard Building to be demolished to make way for a mixed-use development that could include retail, office and residential or hotel space.

"The question underlying a lot of this is: Is sitting on one of the premier sites downtown the best way to advance their educational mission?" said Douglas B. McCoach III, the city planning director. He suggested that the college could better serve its students by converting its downtown land into money for professors and classrooms.

The prime location, on the eastern side of downtown and just a block from the Inner Harbor, is zoned to allow for skyscraper-size buildings.

The land is clearly valuable - a parking garage on Lombard Street near the college was assessed by the state at $10 million - but the college says it does not want to sell its property. Instead, it plans to lease the land to ensure a continuing stream of revenue.

The college leases land it owns on Pratt Street to the Lockwood Place shopping development, home to a Best Buy and other stores, for $1 million a year.

"We're always looking to maximize our resources," said BCCC President Carolane Williams, "and hopefully we can generate some revenue that will allow us to continue serving the Baltimore area and even adding new programs."

The college is hurting for space. Officials say they've run out of room at the main Liberty Heights Avenue campus. They hope money from leasing their downtown land will help to pay for a new campus in East or Southeast Baltimore.

BCCC is looking for 120,000 square feet of space it could occupy in summer 2010 - when construction downtown could begin.

Perhaps the best use for the Inner Harbor site would be retail and apartments, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp. He said retail has done well in that area, pointing to Power Plant Live and Lockwood Place.

"It's an exceptional retail opportunity," Brodie said of the college site. He said the land is large enough to entice a major department store back downtown, mentioning Nordstrom as an example. He also said the apartment market downtown has shown consistent strength and that could combine with retail stores.

"I think one would be hard-pressed to find a better location downtown," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership and a member of the college's real estate task force. He said Mayor Sheila Dixon spoke to developers about the opportunity when she attended a national convention for retailers in Las Vegas in May.

"The developers immediately recognized the attractiveness of the offer," Fowler said. He said new development would help bring people north from the harbor. "This would be a signature building on Lombard Street, and there aren't many of those," he said.

Indeed, Lombard Street has often been derided as little more than a service alley for the more vibrant Pratt Street. To fix that, the city and downtown advocates are pushing for a mixed-use development on the land, so the area would be busy and filled with people at all hours.

The college has asked for proposals by Sept. 26. Developers must decide how to handle the Baltimore Holocaust Memorial, which is on 1.1 acres of the college's land. Developers could either leave the memorial as it is or propose a plan that reconfigures or moves the memorial.

The Baltimore Jewish Council, which leases the memorial land, was notified of the college's plans and will be involved in determining the fate of the memorial, college officials said. Arthur C. Abramson, executive direcctor of the Baltimore Jewish Council, was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment.

The memorial, which includes a sculpture that represents the flame of death, with the bodies of Holocaust victims attached to it, has not been embraced. A prominent urban design critic told The Sun in 2005 that the memorial was "ugly and brutal." Developer David Cordish said yesterday that the memorial could be "vastly improved."

And Fowler, from the Downtown Partnership, said, "I think enterprising developers could come up with a very imaginative solution for the site and perhaps a memorial that more people would be able to visit and appreciate."

The college's Bard Building is also no favorite of architectural critics. The 1977 structure, which features an institutional, Soviet-style look, has little connection with the street or its surroundings. It has been afflicted with mold, water leaks and mechanical problems.

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