Officials gathered Tuesday to herald the start of construction on a new 44-story apartment tower on the Inner Harbor parking lot that was once home to the McCormick & Co. spice factory.
Stephen Gorn, the chairman, president and CEO of Questar Properties, hosted the groundbreaking celebration for the $160 million-plus blue glass apartment building Tuesday, pledging to complete the project in two years.
Gorn said the 414 Light Street development is a legacy building for his family firm, which has built thousands of apartment communities across Maryland.
"This is certainly the most exciting, challenging project we have," said Gorn, 64, who founded Pikesville-based Questar in 1971 with his brother-in-law, following his father and grandfather into the industry. "This could be our magnum opus."
The 1.9-acre site at the corner of Light and Conway streets has sat undeveloped for more than 25 years, in some ways a stubborn reminder of the city's diminished business base. Several developers have proposed office, condo and hotel projects that never materialized, even as the area around it filled with hotels, a new visitor center and other residential development.
The new building would rise nearly 500 feet, making it among the tallest in the city. (The nearby Transamerica Tower is the tallest at more than 525 feet.)
"For those of us who grew up in Baltimore and are of a certain age, this site holds a lot of memories," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "Two years from now, I know that we will marvel at its transformation and Baltimore will have a new landmark in its skyline."
Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler, who used to live nearby and speculate about the property's future, said the new plans are a sign of Baltimore's progress as a city, the strength of its rental market and Gorn's commitment to the project.
"I thought this site is going to take off and, with some fear and trepidation, I thought it might happen while I was there. But that was 20 years ago," he said at the event. "Thanks very much for pushing this to the finish line."
The 414 Light Street tower is not the Gorn family's first stab at urban building — Gorn's father, Morton, and others also constructed the Horizon House in Mount Vernon nearly 50 years ago — but most of the firm's developments have been low- and mid-rise apartment communities in the suburbs, such as Avalon Village Green in Pikesville and Greenwich Place at Town Center in Owings Mills.
It also has developed shopping centers, homes and condominiums.
Gorn said his firm saw opportunity in the downtown site that his firm first tried to buy in 2002 from an affiliate of the Rouse Co. But it lost the bid to a Tennessee parking lot operator who offered more.
"For those of you who know me and know my company, we do not like coming in second," he said to a crowd that included his mother, sister and son, who also works at Questar.
Questar finally purchased the property at a foreclosure auction in 2011. It shopped the site to Exelon for its regional headquarters, but the energy firm chose Harbor Point instead. In 2014, Questar presented designs for the apartment tower.
The building is to include 394 apartments, more than 12,000 square feet of retail and nearly 470 parking spaces, as well as a "rooftop park" with a pool, grill, gym and pet spa. Gorn said he is looking for at least one "white-tablecloth" restaurant to lease part of the ground floor space.
Monthly rents are expected to range between $1,750 for a small studio to more than $8,000 — a premium that Gorn said he thinks Baltimore is ready for, despite the many new rental buildings completed or started since he embarked on the project. The project will not include affordable units.
"There's an urban renaissance going on in downtown Baltimore," he said. "When you see more high-quality apartment product coming into the market, it really feeds on itself."
Gorn said a new city tax break for apartment projects was key to getting the project off the ground.
The 10-year program, which the city approved in 2014, has been applied to about 1,600 market-rate units so far, Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday.
For 414 Light Street, it was worth more than $2 million a year, Gorn said.
"It was a game-changing factor," he said.
Financing for the project, led by Citizens Bank, was announced last month. Gorn said the firm expects to get building permits in the next few weeks.
The new building allows for additional construction on the property. Questar is starting to consider those plans, Gorn said.
"We were waiting for the right opportunity and 414 Light Street is a fantastic opportunity to do something really special," he said.