City goes real estate agent, pitching 'ecletic' surplus property
By NATALIE SHERMAN and The Baltimore Sun
Jun 10, 2014 | 12:41 PM
Like the sound of a Greek Revival mansion with an "amazing view"? Want to own a "piece of Baltimore history"? Willing to look beyond a "scarred exterior"?
Baltimore Housing has launched a marketing campaign for a select group of so-called "eclectic" properties owned by the city, in an effort to highlight the value hidden in the sea of roughly 1,000 vacant buildings it has listed for sale.
The 18 sites, drawn from across the city, include the 1838 Upton Mansion, two former schools, two firehouses, a brick warehouse, and a one-time library, as well as some vacant lots open for new construction and several blocks of rowhouses traditionally associated with the Vacants to Value program.
"A must-see," urge the city's materials of a five-story late-Victorian brick building listed on the National Historic Register at 1313 Druid Hill Ave., within walking distance of State Center and close to nearby schools and transit. (The city dropped the former orphanage's name — Home of the Friendless.)
"I like it," said real estate attorney Jon Laria, managing partner of Ballard Spahr's Baltimore office, of the city's strategy, as he perused the city's online pamphlet, which identifies lot size, location and incentives available for redevelopment. "A lot of what they've done in the past is rowhouse inventory. They've chosen some buildings that have unique characteristics."
It is the first time the agency has launched this kind of campaign to shed its surplus property, some of them longtime staples of the city inventory, said Julia Day, Baltimore Housing's deputy commissioner of land resources.
"We're just trying to spice it up a little bit," she said. "The stature of these buildings really call out for good investments, good proposals and I think the best way to get that is to broadcast widely."
This month and next, Day said, officials will host open houses "to get people to come in with their contractors, their architects, their rose-colored glasses."
Proposals are due Sept. 15, and Day said the city hopes to turn the properties over to private hands by the end of the year.
Baltimore, with such early examples of adaptive reuse as Powerplant Live and the Tide Point offices, has experience with the way converted historic buildings can serve as a catalyst for broader revitalization.
The city is one of five to be included in a forthcoming national report about adaptive reuse assembled by the Partnership for Building Reuse, a collaboration of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Urban Land Institute.
Tom Liebel, principal at Marks, Thomas Architects, who is working on the ULI report with Laria and others, said historic conversions have started to bubble up beyond the standard "I can see the water" sites, making it a good time for the city to redouble its selling effort.
"You're seeing development move into communities that have not seen a lot of development activity and it frequently starts with looking at an older building and repurposing it," said Liebel, whose firm's conversions include Miller's Court in Remington and Union Mill in Woodberry, and who chairs the city's commission for historical and architectural preservation. "We're in the sweet spot now, where we have a lot of opportunities and also growing demand."
Some of the properties on the city's list may be more appealing than others. Liebel described the former Hollins branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 31 S. Payson St. as a "brick box," but said the fire stations and warehouse have "character."
But, he said, this kind of marketing can help outsiders identify opportunities, especially if they're not familiar with the neighborhoods.
"A lot of people aren't always aware of what's available. ... What will be useful for this is to get people to take a look at communities they might not have looked at before," Liebel said. "I'm looking at a couple of ones and saying, 'OK. I need to make some phone calls."
Some — a bundle of 14 homes in the 1500 block of N. Broadway in Oliver just north of the East Baltimore Development Inc. site, for example —already have piqued developer interest, Day said. While the city expects most interest to be local, Day said she received a call from Chicago Monday morning.
The city doesn't really know what the properties might sell for, said Day, guessing some could fetch around $40,000. Baltimore Housing will vet proposals for viability.
"Even the best idea, if it can't be done, we don't want," she said.
In some cases, such as the Gorsuch Avenue fire station in Colstream Homestead Montebello, community groups have tried to refashion the buildings but lacked the money to move forward.
"I would have preferred that it not be put up for sale, but I do understand," said Mark Washington, executive director of Coldstream Homestead Montebello Community Corp., which still hopes to see the station, used during the 2004 Joaquin Phoenix and John Travolta movie "Ladder 49," become a job training center. "It is a prize and a jewel and a gem in our neighborhood that we just want to see, not only saved and restored, but also put to beneficial use."
Johns Hopkins, executive director of the Baltimore Heritage Inc. historic preservation organization, said he is hopeful that the marketing campaign will be more effective at attracting new uses and owners, particularly when it comes to the 1838 Upton Mansion on West Lanvale Street.
"It could be a wonderful building. Whether this will work, the city's packaging, I don't know," he said. "I think it's a good effort, and I certainly will be a cheerleader."
To learn more about the properties, visit the city's Vacants to Value website or see its marketing materials here