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The strength of downtown [Editorial]

Downtown Partnership of BaltimoreT. Rowe PriceStephanie Rawlings-BlakeJames A.C. Kennedy

Rumors of downtown Baltimore's demise, it seems, have been greatly exaggerated. The decision this week by money manager and downtown anchor T. Rowe Price to stay in its Pratt Street headquarters through at least 2027 should alleviate fears that the city's traditional central business district will empty out in favor of fancier and newer quarters in Harbor East. T. Rowe executives heard the siren song of developer Michael Beatty's presentation about the mini-city he plans to build at Harbor Point, and decided to stay, no lashing to the mast required.

In April, T. Rowe officials made it known that they were exploring their options for what to do after their current lease expires in 2017. It's standard operating procedure for the firm, and doubtless a smart negotiating tactic, but when CEO James A.C. Kennedy mentioned that the company had heard a "very impressive" pitch from Mr. Beatty, it set off a new round of hand-wringing from those who were stung by Legg Mason's decision to decamp from its downtown tower to Harbor East several years ago. In the context of the debate at the time over tax incentives for Harbor Point, it led to criticism from powerful downtown players who argued that the city was sacrificing one area for another with no net gain.

T. Rowe's continued presence adds stability to the class-A office market downtown, where vacancies are, depending on which estimate you choose, somewhere in the 15 percent to 17 percent range but trending in the right direction. Meanwhile, the conversion of class-B office space into apartments is proceeding rapidly, changing the economics of downtown real estate and the overall fabric of life there. Baltimore's old central business district is the fastest-growing part of the city by population, and it shows no sign of slowing down. More than 40,000 people now live within a mile of the intersection of Pratt and Light streets, and according to the Downtown Partnership, the occupancy rate downtown is more than 96 percent.

The importance of that is hard to overstate. T. Rowe officials said one of their biggest considerations in deciding whether to stay downtown was the safety of their employees, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake worked to address the company's concerns through increased police patrols and other adjustments. But the more downtown becomes a place where people live and not just work, the safer it will be, and perhaps just as crucially, the safer it will seem. Harbor East seems safe not just because of private security patrols — something the traditional downtown also has — but because it has a vibrant street life, virtually 24 hours a day.

Harbor East was designed with that in mind, and so will be Harbor Point. But the central business district was developed in a different era with different sensibilities, and although it is becoming a more integrated, mixed-use environment, that change is easy to miss because it is happening gradually and piecemeal. But developments like the conversion of 10 Light Street into 445 new apartments or the transformation of the old Mercantile Trust & Deposit Co. building into a theater for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company are slowly connecting the disparate pieces of downtown into a real neighborhood. Relatively small changes to the environment — like the Downtown Partnership's effort to remove the berms along Pratt Street and its plans to raze the fountain in McKeldin Plaza — are aiding the transformation.

In a sign of detente between Harbor East/Harbor Point and downtown, Mr. Beatty this week accepted a position on the Downtown Partnership board. He said he expects to fill most of the new tenants in Harbor Point to come from out of town.

And that's the key to the puzzle: growing the pie rather than fighting to retain the share we have. To that end, it's gratifying to see Mayor Rawlings-Blake developing a comprehensive economic development plan for the city. Why it required spending $167,500 in taxpayer funds for a consultant from Texas is a mystery, but the goal of finding ways to attract businesses to the city and to help home-grown ones to flourish is laudable. If she succeeds, perhaps by 2027 we won't need to view the end of T. Rowe Price's lease with quite so much municipal angst.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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