With collection of projects, a new west side comes into focus

West Side development may be starting to percolate

Developer Shaffin Jetha has worked on hotels in Mount Vernon and apartments near Patterson Park, but the west side is a new neighborhood for him — and that's part of its appeal.

"The land rush hasn't hit that part of the city yet," said Jetha, whose Focus Development plans a $40 million mix of residences and retail in both historic rehab and new construction along Fayette Street. "We have an opportunity to help change the neighborhood."

The west side, Market Center, UniverCity Center, the Bromo Tower Arts District — officials aren't quite sure what to call the blocks just west of downtown, where dozens of publicly owned properties lie vacant and deteriorating in depressing testimony to one of the city's biggest failed urban renewal efforts.

But they're trying out different taglines, as the city and other major landlords ease their grip on the neighborhood and turn it back to private hands in the hopes that one will soon fit.

"We're in sell mode," said Colin Tarbert, deputy mayor for economic and neighborhood development. "If there are willing buyers, we're certainly looking to move those properties … back on the tax rolls and create active uses."

Over the last year, the city has agreed to sell more than a dozen of its holdings to private groups for projects that include a theater incubator and apartments.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore is planning about $100,000 in improvements to facades on its parcels in the area. Late last month, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents also approved a ground lease with a joint venture partnership made up of Jetha's firm and Kinsley Equities III for a group of four UMB properties — the bulk of two blocks on Fayette Street close to Lexington Market, including the historic Sons of Italy and Drovers buildings

"We thought it was a great market to invest in long term," said Jetha, whose partnership also secured an option to buy the properties. "We've very excited to be part of what we think is a very good neighborhood story."

The private activity complements a plan released last month to overhaul Lexington Market, which called for opening up the market's interior and shaking up the merchant mix. The report also recommended improvements to the streets around the market.

"We've come a long way," said Kimberly A. Clark, executive vice president at the Baltimore Development Corp. "It's a much more positive atmosphere, and folks are just generally more excited."

Okoro Development acquired three city-owned properties in the area this month, with plans for a roughly $1 million rehab for nine apartments and two commercial spaces at the corner of Lexington and Liberty streets. It will be the firm's third west-side project.

"Sometimes ... the dance floor's empty. They just need one person to go and start dancing, and then before you know it, the place is jamming. That's my logic," said Chukes Okoro, whose portfolio includes the former Saratoga Street home of the Mekong Delta restaurant.

He said he wants to see the area grow into a place known for eclectic, not necessarily pricey, restaurants.

Once a main Baltimore shopping district between Howard Street and Lexington Market, the west side fell into decline. In 1998, the city embarked on a major urban renewal effort that resulted in the acquisition of hundreds of properties in the area.

There were some successes. More than 1,000 apartments were created in new or renovated buildings. Landmarks such as the Hippodrome Theatre and the Bromo-Seltzer Tower were renovated. Catholic Relief Services opened offices in the former Stewart's department store. New restaurants located in the area.

But many blocks remain vacant, with projects stalled by lack of interest or litigation brought by preservationists, local merchants and others opposed to the extensive demolition and relocation proposed.

BDC's Clark said the delays prompted a different approach to development in the area, one that is more accepting of smaller-scale projects.

New leaders also entered the picture. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and University of Maryland, Baltimore President Jay A. Perman launched a new partnership to help focus planning efforts.

Changes in downtown, as well as an improving economy, are also helping attract developers to the area.

Adam Hoffman, a New York-based real estate investor, and his partner Gabriel Bentovim, started work in the fall on their second west-side project, a $1.9 million renovation of Eutaw Street's former Palmer House and Devine Seafood properties into residences, restaurant and retail.

Hoffman said demand for housing and commercial space in the area is strong, so long as a developer doesn't expect sky-high rents.

"All I do is put a sign on the building and I get a phone call," he said.

The Time Group's 520 Park Avenue project, on land owned with the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, has helped anchor the neighborhood's northern edge. The firm is also studying development options on the adjacent parking lot, also part of the Weinberg site.

Nearby, an upgraded dog park opposite the Centre Street light rail stop, is expected to open this summer, creating a draw for people and pets.

Signficant challenges remain. Last year, the Social Security Administration moved out of the massive MetroWest complex, starting the lengthy federal disposition process.

At least one major project, the so-called Superblock remains in court, as developer Lexington Square Partners appeals a decision that would allow the city to terminate its agreement with the group and turn elsewhere for redevelopment of the site, roughly bordered by Lexington, Howard and Fayette streets and Park Avenue.

The Superblock's fate also affects the timing of work at 200 W. Lexington St., where the Weinberg Foundation named the Cordish Cos. as the developer.

The BDC expects to offer some 20 properties in the 400 block of N. Howard St. this spring, Clark said. Those sites are so tricky that the agency brought architects on board last year to develop concepts.

"There's no question both the private and public sectors still need to address Howard Street. It's a significant barrier," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and an advocate for the Bromo Tower Arts District name. "I'd love to say we're at a point of critical mass. I don't think we're there yet, but we're getting closer and closer."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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