Downtown surface parking lots — once reminders of failed urban revitalization — are drawing renewed interest as development sites.
In the last year, plans for two major developments on surface parking lots in downtown Baltimore were announced, and development officials and city leaders want to see that trend continue in the coming year. Earlier this month, plans to build a hotel at 300 E. Pratt St. — a parking lot since the demolition site of the old News American newspaper building — were presented to a city design panel. This spring, developer Questar announced intentions to build a 44-story apartment tower at 414 Light St. on a parking lot where a McCormick & Co. factory once stood.
“I think you could look at any surface parking lot in the Central Business District, and I would tend to believe that they are primed for development. I think that’s the first focus area is to sort of rid ourselves of these surface parking lots that for many years were considered just to be temporary parking lots,” said Baltimore Development Corp. Executive Vice President Kimberly Clark. “Now with all the development going on [the lots] could really be something so much better and meaningful for the city.”
Clark said lots on Mulberry, Franklin and Light streets as well as a large lot at Guilford Avenue between Saratoga and Pleasant streets all are viable plots for building. In fact, building on surface parking lots is often a more attractive proposition because there’s no demolition associated with building on an occupied lot.
“There’s no demolition, they’re sort of vacant spaces. Many of them — if there was any sort of environmental issues — they’ve already been re-mediated and they’ve simply been used for parking for 10,15,20,30 years,” Clark said. “They’re also sort of blank canvases that allow for a personal touch from a developer as to what they want to do.”
Kirby Fowler, president of Downtown Partnership Inc., said he believes there are three parcels that are primed for development in the central business district, in particular the Baltimore Community College’s Bard building site at Lombard Street and Market Place. The college has previously solicited bids for the site but the project fell victim to the recession. He also said officials hope to hear shortly from the General Service Administration regarding the disposition of the U.S. Appraisers Store building at Lombard and Gay streets.
Fowler sees a lot of potential for development on surface parking lots downtown, and he said developments, such as the mixed-use project planned for 1 Light St.on the lot left after the old Southern Hotel was demolished, show the potential for such sites. He also said the partnership would like to see development happen at the Edison Parking owned surface lot at Guilford Avenue and Baltimore Street.
“If all of these projects come to fruition we’re starting to run out of surface parking lots downtown, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing —there’s plenty of parking garages still in the core” Fowler said.
Both Fowler and Clark agreed that the focus on development downtown should continue to be on projects that combine residential and commercial elements.
“Downtown has continued this evolution over the past few decades from this purely commercial district to one that has a greater variety of uses. We wish to continue to push in that direction … wherever we can we want to push a combination of uses but we still feel in particular, given the growing residential population on top of the strong employment density, we need better retail,” Fowler said.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the development of lots downtown is part of Baltimore becoming a more vibrant city but that she believes the downtown area could still use more residential and retail projects.
“The lessons to learn from urban development is to have an active street level, and I hope that we continue to plan for that in developments. It’s one thing to have … an increase in residential, but if we don’t continue to add amenities for those residents it’s not going to be a complete community,” Rawlings-Blake said. “I think we’ve seen growth, and the downtown is our fastest growing neighborhood, per the census tract, but we need to make sure that we are, like I said, doing complete communities and making it a more active neighborhood 24 hours a day.”