A new tower, possibly of apartments, could rise on the East Pratt Street parking lot across from Harborplace in the next four to six years, filling one of the most prominent vacant lots in downtown Baltimore.
A Chicago-based parking garage operator and developer bought the nearly 1-acre former site of the News American newspaper for an undisclosed sum, Cushman & Wakefield of Maryland Inc., the brokerage firm representing the seller, has announced.
InterPark Holdings, a private investor in parking facilities across the United States, purchased the land at 300 E. Pratt St. from UrbanAmerica Advisors LLC, which has owned it for seven years. Officials with InterPark could not be reached Monday.
InterPark plans to partner with a developer "to create a mixed-use project," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. "You want to have something that engages pedestrians all along the street, and surface parking doesn't do that."
Fowler called the lot "the last piece of the Pratt Street puzzle."
The block has remained vacant while being unsuccessfully targeted for various high-profile projects for more than two decades.
UrbanAmerica, a New York-based real estate private equity firm, bought the property seven years ago for $28 million, planning to build a $250 million, 50-story condominium and hotel skyscraper. The recession derailed the project. A previous owner also floated proposals that never materialized for offices, a hotel, apartments and condominiums, but the parcel between South and Commerce streets has been operated as a parking lot since it was cleared in 1990.
Baltimore Councilman William H. Cole IV, whose district includes the area, said InterPark approached him about sponsoring an ordinance that will allow the company to operate the existing surface parking while it pursues development.
"They made it clear to me their intent is to develop the site," Cole said. "It fills in one of the last remaining gaps on Pratt Street."
The City Council passed an ordinance this month that requires the new owner to make substantial progress on a development plan within the first four years, and allows for a two-year extension. When that six-year period ends, the site can no longer be operated as a surface lot, part of a city zoning strategy to prevent structures from being razed for development but then left for parking.
Fowler said InterPark has shown itself to be "a good corporate citizen" at Hopkins Plaza, where it operates the underground parking garage, and has worked with the city as it made improvements to the plaza, including giving up garage space for a mechanical room used to operate the plaza's fountain.
Thomas J. Stosur, director of the city Department of Planning, said he is not aware of plans being submitted to the city.
The site has the potential for about 600,000 square feet of development, Cushman & Wakefield said in its announcement.
"In my mind, this is one of the best development sites left in Maryland," Cristopher Abramson, executive director of capital markets for Cushman & Wakefield, said in the firm's announcement.
An apartment project, with a mix of other uses such as shops, seems a strong possibility, Fowler said. Occupancy levels at apartment buildings downtown have been averaging 96 percent or better, with many buildings fully occupied, he said.
A total of 1,799 apartments units are being added downtown between 2012 and 2013, according to the Downtown Partnership's apartment pipeline summary. The group estimated that 5,800 apartment units could be absorbed downtown through 2017, while about 4,000 likely will be built.
"Clearly the market is doing well," said Fowler, attributing the growth to the appeal of urban living and downtown's improving quality of life.
Cole said he believes timing will make all the difference between previous proposals for the Inner Harbor site and one now.
"It's a completely different market right now in Baltimore," Cole said. "We are seeing remarkable, remarkable interest in rental apartments. It's a great location. I'm sure we will see some mixed-use project come out of there. There's got to be something they can do that will work."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun