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2 plans call for more residences in downtown Baltimore

Kirby Fowler, President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore

Downtown Baltimore needs to grow, and adding residences is among the best ways to do that, according to two development plans for center city unveiled Wednesday.

One plan, from the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, highlights a need to whittle down the high vacancy rate for office space, use existing and new development incentives to spur redevelopment and convert of old office space to residential units.

The second plan, by a task force appointed in December 2010 by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, focuses on the office vacancy rate downtown.

Rawlings-Blake’s task force findings were incorporated into the report of the Downtown Partnership. J. Kirby Fowler, president of the partnership, co-chaired the mayor’s task force.

The partnership’s report, called “The Downtown Baltimore Strategic Plan,” took two years to compile and cost $85,000, of which $70,000 was paid by the taxpayers. It was to have been released Thursday morning at the group’s annual meeting.

In addition to reducing the vacant office space problem, it calls for establishment of a large tax increment financing district that would sell private bonds to help redevelop Lexington Market, redesign the Pratt Street corridor and reshape Hopkins Plaza, Fowler said.

“It’s the ‘but-for’ approach,” he said, of the using a new broad TIF district bounded by Pratt, Paca and Center streets and Guilford Avenue as a means to help pay for expensive redevelopment plans for parts of downtown with bonds repaid over decades from diverted property taxes.

A consultant is drawing up a proposal to be presented this year, Fowler said.

“If we don’t do this, where will the tax base go?” Fowler asked, of the TIF expenditures.

He said the partnership’s goal is to boost downtown development, which has been hampered by an office vacancy rate of 19.2 percent in center city, blamed on the recession.

Rawlings-Blake said growth in center city will lead to jobs.

“As the country comes out of the recession, it is important to effectively market downtown Baltimore as a great place to locate and grow a business in the new economy,” the mayor said in a statement. “A collaborative marketing effort with private sector support is an important step toward attracting new businesses downtown.”

The reports were released the same day a hearing was held in Baltimore City Circuit Court over a lawsuit aimed at halting a $1.5 billion redevelopment of State Center.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of downtown property owners who claim that addition of 1.5 million square feet of new office, retail and residential space just over a mile from center city will negatively impact downtown’s stability and future.

It is the latest chapter in the ongoing debate over downtown Baltimore’s future course.

Existing property owners say they are seeking to stabilize their assets after the recession left them with high vacancy rates, while groups such as the partnership and the Economic Alliance for Greater Baltimore are pursuing a new vision for more residential units, open space and retail.

Figures from the partnership show that the city’s population downtown grew to 41,300 from 39,760 in 2010.

The partnership is a nonprofit that was formed nearly 25 years ago to focus on making downtown Baltimore “clean, inviting and safe.” Its initiatives are funded through a surcharge paid to the partnership by local businesses located within a one-mile radius from the Charles Street corridor.

The partnership also works with city planners and the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s quasi-private development arm, Fowler said.

But lately, the partnership has presented a series of reports and master plans for downtown that have given its board of directors more of an active voice in the city’s future developments.

The group recently hired a “resident coordinator” to help with downtown rental space and plans to hire a substance abuse coordinator to help with drug addicts who roam downtown streets.

“For years, we’ve been the lead on downtown issues,” Fowler said, explaining the partnership’s shift toward a more hands-on approach. “We have an advocacy role. It is not a new role for us. We are part of a larger economic development conversation.”

The strategic plan presents a list of 11 recommendations to transform Baltimore’s core business district, beginning with more residential space. The mayor’s task force identified six office buildings that could be converted to residences.

Fowler cited a recent survey that said apartments in downtown are 96 percent occupied as evidence that living in the center of Baltimore is desirable.

The group’s recommendations also call for eliminating surface parking lots because they are unsightly, landmarking historic structures downtown to preserve them and seeking large retailers to locate downtown, perhaps in the former Morris Mechanic Theatre building.

Nan Rohrer, vice president for economic development and planning for the partnership, said a top priority is converting vacant office space into new residential units.

“A lot of these things don’t work for what people want in an office building now,” Rohrer said. “Given we have a 90 percent occupancy rate, it is a good idea.”

One comment

  1. It sounds like a good idea but why should the rest of the city pay for it?