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A ‘renter’s market’ gives Bernstein choices for office

If Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein can find a way to increase his agency’s annual rent budget from zero to $1 million or more per year, there are several buildings near the courthouses downtown that could accommodate his recent call for contiguous office space.

Where the money to pay for space outside the agency’s current headquarters in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse will come from when the city and state governments are cash-strapped is but one variable, according to local commercial real estate experts.

How many square feet and what kind of amenities the lawyers and staff would need, how far Bernstein would want them to be from the courtrooms where they prosecute the city’s enormous criminal caseload, and how well they could bargain as a big government tenant would all factor into where they might move, if anywhere.

“There’s alternatives in the market, and they have choices,” said Owen Rouse, senior vice president at Manekin LLC. “Just need a couple million bucks for the rent, and you’re off to the races.”

Neither Bernstein nor his spokesman offered many details last week that would shorten the list of possible buildings past a handful. And a Baltimore Department of General Services spokeswoman said Bernstein would have to coordinate between her office and Baltimore City Circuit Court Administrative Judge Marcella A. Holland about any move.

But it’s a renter’s market in the Central Business District, Rouse and others say, so now is as good a time as any to test the waters.

“Any landlord for that amount of square footage would probably try to make it work,” said Terri Harrington, vice president at MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services.

The square footage variable itself contains variables. Bernstein would likely move most of his approximately 430 employees to a new office — otherwise, it wouldn’t solve the contiguity issue — but how many? And would they share space with each other, known as “hoteling,” or spread out to a roomier 250 square feet per person? Maybe fewer square feet would suffice if it was in a building with larger floors.

“The other thing is, is the nature of their business so special that an old building with a lot of charm just won’t work because ‘fill in the blank,’” Rouse said. “You know, all the charm might be great for an architectural company, but do they have people coming and going [to] their space from the public?”

Proximity to the courthouse is no doubt important to Bernstein, but whether he would want space more than a block away is not clear. The state’s attorney’s office now leases space in two buildings one block from the Mitchell building, one of which, the Blaustein Building, has 30,000 square feet of vacant, contiguous space. Three other options sit just a block away.

The SunTrust Bank building at 120 E. Baltimore St. is the newest of the likely candidates. It has the space vacated by Ober Kaler (which is moving to the Transamerica Tower at 100 Light St.), and is Class A, thanks to various amenities. It’s listed at $22 per square foot.

The former Bank of America operations center at 225 N. Calvert St. has a parking garage, but on the other hand is Class C and is asking $18 per square foot. Tim Jackson, a senior director at Cushman & Wakefield Inc., which represents the landlords at both buildings, promoted the Baltimore Street building’s value but said the Calvert Street property, which he said has been “very well maintained,” “could work.”

“That’s a totally different animal,” Jackson said of the operations center. “That owner would do back flips to get a tenant of that size in there.”

The old Provident Bank building at 114 E. Lexington St. is right across the street from the Mitchell courthouse, right behind the city public defender’s office and might have enough contiguous space. But it’s for sale by M&T Bank.

Farther afield would be 2 Hopkins Plaza, which once housed the law firm Venable LLP and Mercantile Bank and thus would have the security a prosecutor’s office might covet. Experts also mentioned the office tower at 217 E. Redwood St.

“At the end of the day, I think he would have a handful of options that would work and that would be suitable, depending on what types of commitments the city and state would be willing to make,” Jackson said.