Apartment tower proposed for Inner Harbor site

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4/3/14  Baltimore, Md.  Looking south-east towards Federal Hill at the Inner Harbor - parking lot at corner of Conway and 414 Light Street.  Photo by Jeffrey F. Bill / Baltimore Sun Staff Photographer

A Pikesville developer will present plans to the city next week to build one of Baltimore's tallest buildings on the site of the former McCormick & Co. spice factory at the Inner Harbor, transforming the skyline with a luxury apartment tower.

The Questar Properties building would rise 40 to 45 stories and contain 350 to 370 residences, said Stephen Gorn, the development firm's chairman and CEO. The design remains fluid and will depend in part on feedback during the public process, he said.


The tower would be less than 500 feet tall, Gorn said. That is shorter than the 40-story, 529-foot Transamerica building a block away at 100 Light St., but would dwarf most buildings in the city, including the 24-story Legg Mason building in Harbor East and the 23-story planned regional headquarters for Exelon in Harbor Point.

The 1.9-acre tract at Light and Conway Streets is one of two remaining open developments sites on the front row of the Inner Harbor.


"We're hoping the design that we're contemplating is going to be very exciting," Gorn said. "We really perceive our responsibility to the site."

He declined to provide a rendering before presenting it to the city's design review panel next week, but said the building would have a significant "glass component."

Developers have proposed several projects over the years for the site, which has been used as a parking lot since the spice factory was razed in 1988.

A $300 million plan approved in 2006 for 59 stories of condominiums and a hotel fell through during the recession. The property owner, an affiliate of a Philadelphia-based developer, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010.

Questar purchased the property at auction for $11.5 million as 414 Light Street Associates LLC three years ago, but Gorn said the company had eyed the parcel for more than a decade with an idea for mixed-use development.

In 2012, the company sought tax credits from the city while pitching the site for a 35-story regional headquarters for energy company Exelon Corp., with street-level shops, roughly 350 apartments and a parking garage. The Chicago-based firm ended up selecting Harbor Point.

Questar wants to break ground on the tower by the end of the year, with a target completion date in 2017, Gorn said. The project is expected to cost at least $130 million.

District 11 City Councilman Bill Cole called the site a "once-in-a-generation" development opportunity and said the building's scale suggests a renewed appetite for economic investment in the city.


"We haven't had this type of dense project, this height, in decades, so that's exciting that Questar is able to come to the table with something grand and something that will enhance the Baltimore skyline," he said. "I think it's a really good sign for the city as a whole."

It would be the latest of many apartment buildings in the works across the city. A Downtown Partnership of Baltimore study found that the city could absorb 5,800 new apartment units between 2013 and 2017 and reported occupancy rates of about 95 percent in its 2013 annual report.

"We've done our market research," said Gorn, a third-generation developer, of the apartment plan. "We think it's something that the city needs right now."

The addition of residential units would help anchor the west side of the harbor, adding 24-hour activity that could act as a counterweight to the high-intensity development in Harbor East and planned for Harbor Point, said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore.

"It's a spectacular location and is a better site for residential than office or commercial," she said. "It's a terrific opportunity to bring more density to that side of the harbor."

As conceived, the apartment tower would include ground-level shopping and a six- or seven-story garage and occupy about half the site. Gorn said the company has not settled on an idea for the project's second phase.


Questar showed preliminary designs to neighborhood groups at a March 12 meeting attended by about 30 people, Cole said.

Barbara Valeri, president of the Towers at Harbor Court condominium association, said people were receptive to development on the site and hopeful that it might bring more stores, such as a Trader Joe's, into the neighborhood.

"I think it could be a very attractive addition to the neighborhood," she said. "We've been expecting something to go there for years and years, but every time something was proposed or got to a certain point in the development process, it fell though."

Gorn said a proposed citywide incentive for apartment developers, which would provide a 10-year credit on value added to the property, is an important part of ongoing discussions about financing for the project.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake discussed the citywide incentive in a speech in February and is expected to introduce a specific proposal Monday.