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Downtown Partnership looks to continue growth in ‘The 401’

Encouraged by robust population growth in the city’s center, Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. will soon launch a marketing effort with billboards, bumper stickers and even a signature cocktail to attract more residents to “The 401.”

Downtown Partnership President J. Kirby Fowler

“We have this growing downtown that is incredibly diverse, that is flying under the radar, and we need to draw some attention to it,” partnership President J. Kirby Fowler said before the organization’s annual meeting Wednesday night.

The partnership took “The 401” moniker from the census tract bounded roughly by Paca, Pratt, President and Franklin streets. The marketing campaign to bring in new residents will build on Fowler’s call to convert unused commercial space into more housing in the area.

“It includes the city center and parts of the West Side so there is no easy way to refer to it,” said Fowler. “So, we’ve decided to create this mysterious sort of name.”

The marketing effort, which Fowler expects to cost less than $20,000, will advertise The 401 on billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers. There is already a website — — that shows pictures of the district under the line, “Are you here?”

Fowler said there also will be a contest to find the best recipe for “The 401” cocktail, to be poured in the area’s bars and restaurants.

While Baltimore shed more than 30,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, the center city more than doubled in population, according to census figures. The 401 grew from 1,739 residents to about 4,000. Its 130 percent growth rate was the best in the city.

The area is also diverse. About half the residents are white, one-quarter are black and nearly as many are Asian.

The strongest population growth came among 22- to 34-year-olds. The average age in 2010, at 28.7, was nearly five years younger than in the city was as a whole.

“You’re getting a better critical mass of attractions to bring people to the city, the stadiums, Harbor East,” said Bob Merbler, a partner with Yerman Witman Gaines & Conklin Realty. “You have a lot of things you can do in the city that you can’t do in the suburbs.”

Merbler said new downtown residents “tend to be young people who come downtown for the activity and the affordability and the empty-nesters who come because it is more affordable.”

More mass transit options, like the Charm City Circulator, and safer streets have bettered the reputation of central Baltimore neighborhoods, said Steven Gondol, executive director of Live Baltimore.

“With most people, I think they’re pleasantly surprised that most of our neighborhoods, especially downtown and Station North, are really safe,” he said.

Yerman Witman agents said there has been stronger growth among rentals, as opposed to owner-occupied housing, in the city. Tighter credit has made it more difficult to both buy homes and finance large condominium projects, Merbler said.

There were 2,328 rental units occupied in 2010 in census tract 401, but only 137 owner-occupied units.

Fowler wants more.

The campaign, which will start in November, is designed to convince property owners to convert empty office space to apartments as well as attract residents to fill them. The area boasts a 97 percent occupancy rate for residential space but a vacancy rate of about 20 percent in commercial properties.

Fowler said his conversion efforts so far have focused on 2 Hopkins Plaza and 10 Light Street, both of which lost major banking tenants. Neither building’s owner has announced plans for the empty space.

“Both are great candidates for residential conversion, said Fowler. “They’re in the central area around where the other residential projects have worked well.”