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New developers of Old Town Mall site provide first glimpse of plans

New developers of Old Town Mall site provide first glimpse of plans
The four-firm development team selected by the city to redevelop 16 acres of land around Old Town Mall on Thursday presented a master plan that looks beyond the original site, with more than 2.2 million square feet of residences, office, retail and a park. (Ayers Saint Gross/Beatty Development)

After years of planning, the developers of a site near Old Town Mall unveiled a broader plan Thursday that they say would tap into a market created by nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital and help weave the neighborhood back into the fabric of the city.

The proposal, which would create more than 2.2 million square feet of new offices, mixed-income apartments, retail and community space, is a response to the city's effort to redevelop a 16-acre site that once held the Somerset Homes public housing and a public market.

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But the vision presented to the city's Urban Design & Architecture Review Panel on Thursday would extend east beyond those boundaries, ultimately involving the extension of two city streets and relocation of a city health clinic, a school and a recreation center. An even later third phase could involve redevelopment of the privately owned Forrest Street Apartments.

"The purpose of this is that Somerset and Old Town have really become isolated," said Tim Pula of Beatty Development, one of four firms working on the project. "The idea is to start reconnecting not just Old Town and Somerset but things that are to the east, including Hopkins and we can start pulling these things and knitting these things back together like they had been to a degree in the early 1900s."

The city selected Beatty Development, Henson Development Co., Commercial Group and Philadelphia-based Mission First Housing Group last year to redevelop public holdings in an area roughly bounded by Central Avenue and Monument, Orleans and Ensor streets. This area in and around the pedestrian Old Town Mall has remained distressed despite decades of revitalization efforts.

Discussions with city agencies and the city housing authority about the additional properties are continuing. A spokeswoman for the Baltimore Development Corp. declined to comment on the plans, saying she did not want to speculate before the parties reached a deal for the parcels, which include the NAF School and the Chick Webb Recreation Center.

"You're consolidating properties and suggesting expansions of the domain without any commitment from anyone else to do so," said Gary Bowden, a member of the design review panel. "That's pretty ambitious."

Pula said the first phase would occur on the land included in the city's original request for proposals. It would include about 920,000 square feet of development, with a grocery store and at least two buildings for which the team plans to apply for low-income housing tax credits, he said.

Those buildings would be constructed first, with the share of market-rate housing in each building growing as the development continues. Pula said the team hopes to get started in 2017.

Pula said it could take 10 years or longer for the plan to be realized, depending on the real estate market. But he said the firm is confident in the market for affordable housing in the city and the need for retail to serve the existing residents, as well as the possibilities created by the proximity to Hopkins and the growth pushing north from Fells Point.

"Obviously it's a tricky area, it's sat vacant for a very long time but that's why we think there's possibility," he said.

The master plan, by Ayers Saint Gross, is preliminary and likely to change. Members of the design panel suggested reorganizing the placement of a small park and other buildings, questioned the amount of retail planned and said they were concerned the street plan would be difficult to navigate.

They also said the project needs to pay more attention to its relationship to the historic Old Town Mall properties, many of them privately owned.

"This is the piece that's going to be there," Planning Director Thomas J. Stosur said. "If that remains just kind of an unrecognized, unfriendly place, it's not going to suit you very well."

Pula declined to say definitively whether the developers intended to seek tax increment financing or other public support for the streets, utilities and other public spaces involved in the project.

"We are trying to get our hands around what the infrastructure need is and what the costs are and how to fund it," he said.

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Architect Klaus Philipsen, who attended the UDARP meeting, said the proposal needs more work, including consideration of how the zone will relate to properties to its west.

"The plan really urgently needs an exciting, recognizable space that identifies it and makes it a signature," he said.

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