Downtown plan urges conversion of vacant office space

Nonprofit issues call to action to strengthen the city center

April 06, 2011|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Warning that downtown Baltimore is at a critical juncture, a plan to be released Thursday by the Downtown Partnership recommends that some vacant office space in the city center be converted to apartments.

"New uses must be found for older towers that no longer work as office space," the group says.

That is just one of several suggestions from the nonprofit, which seeks to promote and revitalize Baltimore's central business district. With the commercial vacancy rate downtown about 19 percent — and with plans for office districts on its periphery raising fears that even more commerce could be siphoned off — the Downtown Partnership's new strategic plan recommends several steps to keep downtown from stagnating further.

Among them: The city should create a Tax Increment Finance, or TIF, district in the oldest parts of downtown to pay for capital improvements and encourage new development.

City leaders should condemn and acquire certain vacant properties when owners let them fall into disrepair, and should set time limits for developers to move ahead with renovation of properties awarded to them by the city.

The group says aging infrastructure must be updated, even though governments are facing drastic budget shortfalls. Moreover, "cash-strapped governments are looking for new income from downtown in the form of new fees and regulations that could choke future growth."

Kirby Fowler, executive director of the partnership, said the strategic plan represents the culmination of two years of work by members of the group and other downtown interests in consultation with Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh.

Fowler said he hopes the plan will impart a "sense of urgency" and serve as a guide for improving downtown areas that have fallen into disuse as the city seeks to emerge from the recessionary climate of the past several years.

"This is a call to action," he said. "We're asking property owners to do a little more. The recession gave us an opportunity to regroup and focus on some of our critical challenges and opportunities, and we are going to focus on those."

Fowler said the plan encourages the continuation of a trend that has taken hold in recent years: the repositioning of downtown as a mixture of office space and housing — making it more than a place to work. He said new housing has made the downtown area more lively after dark and on weekends, and has helped support stores and cultural destinations.

One of the weakest sections of downtown is bounded roughly by Fayette, South, Lombard and Howard streets, Fowler said. The plan recommends creating a TIF district there to help pay for public improvements that would make the heart of downtown more attractive to prospective office tenants and residents.

The strategic plan identifies 23 buildings or properties that it considers underutilized and in need of attention. Among the properties are 10 Light St. (the Bank of America building), 2 Hopkins Plaza (the PNC Bank building), 114 E. Lexington St. (the former Provident Bank headquarters) and 414 Light St., the former McCormick & Co. spice factory lot. The plan suggests that property owners consider converting some office buildings to residences to take advantage of the demand for housing downtown.

Even though most apartment buildings downtown are full or nearly full, Fowler noted, no new residential projects are under construction.

"Downtown's top priority should be continuing its rapid residential growth," the strategic plan says. "Currently, there is not enough rental housing to meet the growing demand."

Another problem, Fowler said, is the phenomenon of companies maintaining long-term leases for entire floors of buildings but not having any staff members in them because the workers have been laid off or relocated. At 10 Light St., Bank of America has a master lease but does not occupy all of the space it controls.

Even though landlords might not suffer because they are receiving rent, the empty floors represent a missed opportunity because they do not contain people who could patronize stores and restaurants downtown, Fowler said.

Fowler said downtown also suffers when rows of smaller buildings are left vacant by owners and then deteriorate. One such stretch, according to the plan, is the south side of the 100 block of E. Baltimore St., where a row of commercial buildings has stood vacant for years while the owner markets the site for a high rise that has not materialized. The report recommends that the city step in and acquire the buildings if the owner does not do anything within a certain time.

Other recommendations include:

Encourage the city to move faster to sell surplus properties. "City-owned properties are underutilized assets. Deadlines should be set for the city to improve, lease or sell its empty buildings. Redevelopment of key city projects — the Superblock, Lexington Market and a new arena — must be a near-term priority."

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