Inside the former Social Security Administration building at 300 N. Greene Street, the blinds were drawn, the escalators still, the floors empty and enveloped in gloom.
"Did we turn the right way?" developer Arthur Adler asked another member of his team as they led a small tour through the massive 1.1 million-square-foot building his firm, Caves Valley Partners, recently purchased from the federal government.
The Metro West complex, which spans two blocks, has been vacant since Social Security moved to new offices near the Reisterstown Road Plaza Metro station in 2014. Towson-based Caves Valley closed on the site in April after winning last year's General Services Administration auction with a $7.1 million bid.
City and federal officials said Wednesday they hope turning the parcel over to private hands will lead to its revival and help shore up the northwest corner of downtown, which has struggled with vacancy and safety concerns despite the growth of the University of Maryland, Baltimore and others.
"What I see here is enormous economic opportunity," said Nate Loewentheil, a senior policy adviser at the National Economic Council in the White House, who was born in Baltimore and whose father co-owned the storied Mencken's Cultured Pearl restaurant near Hollins Market that closed in 1998. "You've got plenty of space to work with, although … you've got your work cut out for you as well."
Adler said his firm, whose other projects include Towson City Center, Towson Row and Stadium Square, is still getting acquainted with the property, which contains more than two dozen escalators, its own bus stop and, until recently, a closet filled with fake explosives used to train a local bomb squad.
To start, Caves Valley is working on plans for a new parking garage off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which would add ground-floor retail and about 1,500 spaces to the roughly 500 already on the site. The property will require tens of millions of dollars in upgrades, including a new heating and cooling system, new roof and new bathrooms, Adler said.
Caves Valley hopes to secure a mix of largely office tenants, with some retail for the complex, but Adler demurred when asked about a timeline for the project, which he said will depend on the market. The firm wants to lease at least a third of the building before it moves forward — no small feat in a city where a soft office market in recent years led developers to convert hundreds of thousands of square feet of dated office buildings into apartments.
"This is a unique building. This is going to take unique tenants. … Who they are, we don't know yet," Adler said. "Hopefully because of affordability and accessibility and things like that, we're going to be able to do great office space at affordable rates."
Opened in 1980, the Metro West complex was constructed to house as many as 6,000 workers with the idea of injecting new life into the area. It held about 1,600 employees when the federal agency left, creating what Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake described as "a big, gaping, vacant hole."
"When you have a community that you're trying to send the signals that we're making progress … it's hard to convey that when you have 1.1 million square feet of vacant," she said.
The General Services Administration marketed the property to federal and state agencies but did not find any takers, with opposition from Sen. Barbara Mikulski and others quashing a proposal to use it to house immigrant children and its large size proving a stumbling block for others.
Rawlings-Blake said she is optimistic about the possibilities, pointing to other investments being made in the area, including the city's own scheme to overhaul the nearby Lexington Market. An announcement about that project, which has been in need of funding, is due next month, she said.
"Big things are happening," she said. "We've seen when we have economic development in this west side of downtown, it's infectious."