Charles Street corridor sees post-recession resurgence

Not all projects are large and not all are visible from the street

  • Walid Hajj is shown here on the rooftop balcony of the building he is renovating, which is the old Calvert School on Chase Street.
Walid Hajj is shown here on the rooftop balcony of the building… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
July 31, 2011|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

Walid Hajj is happy he followed his instincts and bought an incomplete condo redevelopment in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood last fall.

Within three days of advertising the building's 13 newly redeveloped apartments this month, Hajj had rented all but four. And prospective tenants kept on calling to tour the century-old former school on West Chase Street.

While the building's previous owner struggled to sell units amid the housing market downturn, the timing was better for Hajj, a partner in a company that bought the property in October.

The renovation of the old Calvert School is one of numerous projects that have been recently resurrected along the North Charles Street corridor in the heart of downtown. From the Inner Harbor to Charles North, construction and renovation projects are resuming or being planned as investors gain confidence in the economy and developers find deals they can't pass up.

"You're seeing little sprouts [of new development], which is very healthy," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., who said Charles Street is perceived as the heart of Baltimore. "People are more optimistic about development in future years than in the last couple."

Brodie also said small might be the way to go: "Maybe the future is not huge projects, but bit by bit, incremental," he said.

Aside from a couple of visible projects — such as the University of Baltimore's $107 million John and Frances Angelos Law Center going up at North Charles and Mount Royal Avenue — much of the latest progress may not be easy to spot or even be visible at all. The projects revving up tend to be less grand than some of the pre-recession plans for harbor-area skyscrapers and hundreds of pricey new condos.

City officials say years of trying to acquire blighted properties here and there are finally paying off and sparking private investment, with property owners fixing up buildings and developers buying and transforming properties.

Regional development experts say that areas such as Mount Vernon are benefiting from the growth of "destination" institutions, such as the University of Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University and Chase Brexton Health Services, which recently acquired the Monumental Life building at 1111 N. Charles St. All help bring business to the corridor.

Projects in the planning stages or under construction include the UB law school and a nearby student housing project at Biddle and Cathedral streets, as well as new apartments in the former Danny's restaurant at 1201 N. Charles.

Farther south, plans are being considered to expand the Baltimore Convention Center and link it to a new, 18,500-seat downtown arena. Another proposal would redevelop the shuttered Mechanic Theater into a 30-story, 400-unit apartment tower with street-level retail, and yet another plan would create a 15-story apartment building at One Light Street.

By this Friday, city, state and federal officials hope to receive proposals for a mixed-use project that would be built on North Charles Street just north of Penn Station on an Amtrak-owned parking lot.

Other projects that have been talked about for years and now are moving ahead include the conversion of the closed Chesapeake Restaurant in the 1700 block of N. Charles St., which developers are revamping into a restaurant with upper-level offices, and the long-vacant but historic Parkway Theatre on North Avenue near North Charles Street, where developers plan a performing arts center.

Hajj, a former CB Richard Ellis commercial broker who founded WRH Property Holdings two years ago, teamed up with local businessman and developer Jack Luetkemeyer to form Chase Street Apartments LLC and buy the original Calvert School.

Hajj and Luetkemeyer saw a need for apartments that would appeal to young professionals or students who wanted to live within walking distance of restaurants, bars and Penn Station. They bought the building for $550,000, a price Hajj says allows for competitive rents.

"I've gotten tremendous amount of interest in the property," Hajj said. "In my five years in dealing with multifamily [buildings], this is as strong as I've seen the rental market. People aren't buying as much as they used to."

The Mount Vernon location and the building itself — with large windows, heavy wood doors and 14-foot ceilings — all appealed to Natalie Novak, a 26-year-old University of Baltimore School of Law student. Novak, who planned to live with a roommate, was also attracted by the rents, which range from $950 to $1,800 a month.

Novak was one of about two dozen people to tour the newly completed Calvert Apartments when the project was finished this month. The Chicago resident had come to Baltimore for a couple of days to hunt for an apartment and quickly sized up the marketplace.

"The best places are leased before you see them," Novak said. "Coming from Chicago, I feel like prices here are reasonable."

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