Developer J. Joseph Clarke has come up with a half-dozen ideas over the past 20 years — a hotel, corporate headquarters, residences, office space — for a prominent downtown site three blocks from the Inner Harbor. But none took hold.
He hopes this time will be different. So do city leaders whose patience is wearing thin with Clarke and the owner of the site, a parking lot at the corner of Light and East Redwood streets
"I wish it weren't the case that it's gone on this long," said Clarke, president of J.J. Clarke Enterprises Inc. "We think that this is the best proposal that we can make for this site at this time."
He sees the stars finally aligning for the property where the Southern Hotel used to stand. Clarke has proposed developing a 22-story apartment tower and parking garage there. There's now strong demand for housing and parking downtown, Clarke said.
The project would incorporate three vacant buildings fronting East Baltimore Street, but not the Thomas Building at the corner of Light and East Baltimore streets that's home to a McDonald's.
City development officials, disappointed by many false starts, are skeptical that construction will happen there any time soon.
"Our board of directors doesn't believe the current ownership … will ever build anything on the site," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which monitors economic and real estate development in the city center.
The partnership has asked City Hall to consider moving toward condemnation so that new owners can try their hand at developing the properties.
The land is owned by Capital Guidance Corp., a private global investment firm with offices in Washington, Paris, Geneva and Beirut. In the early 1990s the firm brought on Clarke, who has worked on apartment and office buildings throughout the metro area, including the Baltimorean Apartments in Charles Village, to develop the site.
Capital Guidance executives did not respond to interview requests.
Two decades ago when he was first brought on, Clarke sought to use the site for an office tower.
"In everybody's mind, that was Main and Main," he said of the Light and East Baltimore intersection, just steps from Charles Center. Though an office building seemed like a natural fit, no one wanted office space at the time, he said, and the idea fizzled.
The Southern Hotel, which was to be incorporated into the redevelopment, eventually was torn down and Clarke considered other options over the years. A hotel integrated within an office tower was proposed, as was a mixed hotel and residential building. Proposals were submitted for headquarters buildings at the site for T. Rowe Price and Exelon. Nothing stuck — except for the surface parking lot, which has been leased to tenants of 10 Light Street.
Capital Guidance believed Exelon to be a good prospect, Clarke said. The utility company could get a "huge amount of parking" and easy access to the city's metro system at the site, he said. "At the end of the day, they chose Harbor East."
In 2011, a consulting firm commissioned to analyze the site determined that its true economic potential was in residential use.
That same year, Clarke and Hord Coplan Macht Inc., the Baltimore-based architecture firm that has worked on various plans for the site since the early 2000s, presented a 16-story residential tower to the city's architectural review board. The residential tower, called One Light Street, was well received by the design panel but that plan, too, failed to move forward.
"I'm opposed to downtowns full of vacant lots," said Clarke, affirming that he's on the same side as the Downtown Partnership.
He too wants there to be more than asphalt and deteriorating, empty structures in this slice of downtown, but to date, he said, nothing has been viable.
Earlier this month, again facing pressure from the Downtown Partnership, Clarke resurrected the tower plan. Clarke and Hord Coplan Macht reintroduced a modified plan to the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel.
The new plan calls for a 22-story building with about 250 apartments and a 500-space garage — twice the parking called for in the 2011 plan. The extra parking added floors to the garage and overall tower.
Although not much changed with the building plans, there have been many changes in the downtown market that increase the project's feasibility, Clarke said.
Rental rates have increased, downtown apartment construction is booming and, most importantly, the 10 Light Street office tower across the street is being converted into residences.
To meet city requirements, 10 Light Street needs to find a certain number of parking places. But it is not plausible to build a garage within the green and gold crowned building, one of Baltimore's most distinct structures. So, Clarke said, he and his neighboring developer agreed to "work together to satisfy [the] parking requirement" for 10 Light Street.
Cary Euwer, the principal of Metropolitan Partnership Ltd., a Reston, Va., company that bought 10 Light Street last year for $6 million, did not respond to inquires.
"We think 10 Light Street energizes the redevelopment of our site," Clarke said.
Although no funding for One Light Street has been pinned down, Clarke said, he and Capital Guidance believe there's a market for financing it. Just a few days ago, he said, he took an unsolicited call from an investor who finances parking structures.
Clarke estimated that construction will cost $350 per square foot. At 496,000 square feet, the project could come to more than $170 million.
As designed, One Light Street will wrap around the six-story Thomas building constructed in 1920 at the corner of Light and East Baltimore streets. It is owned by McDonald's Corp., which has not shown interest in being involved with current plans, Clarke said, but has cooperated with Capital Guidance in the past.
"McDonald's only recently became aware that the developer, once again, has begun work on this project," said David Neiss, the Baltimore-Washington region director of development for McDonald's USA. "And McDonald's is always interested in talking with those who own property adjacent to our restaurants."
The Downtown Partnership would like to see improvements at the McDonald's property, too. Neither McDonald's nor Capital Guidance have taken adequate care of their properties and they're dragging down the value of adjacent properties, Fowler said. Capital Guidance's three vacant buildings, for example, have wild plants growing from their roofs.
Councilman William H. Cole IV, who represents the central business district, said he regularly hears complaints about the Capital Guidance buildings, but is not ready yet to talk condemnation.
"I certainly am encouraged" by the new proposal, Cole said. "There's some reason to hope this will be different. … There really is heavy, heavy interest in residential, retail mixed-use downtown now."
Clarke, who does not think that the city can legally take control of the properties, is counting on it. He said that Capital Guidance is encouraging him to move forward with the residential tower and parking plan. Another review of the design by the city's architecture panel is set for June 13.
"We think the multifamily opportunity is pretty strong," he said.