A small, local company that formed last year already has renovated a Mount Vernon mansion into new offices and plans to begin overhauling and expanding the former Grand Central building on Charles Street into offices and restaurant space soon.
Then, the firm, Landmark Partners, will head several blocks south to Gay Street to turn three unused buildings the company bought from the city into housing, reserving one in five units for first responders and other city workers who might not be able to afford downtown rent.
Landmark already has spent more than $3 million just to buy the properties in the city center, where development has been dominated by large, upscale apartment projects in recent years.
“Downtown is where a lot of meaningful investment needs to be made to sustain Baltimore and grow it,” said Jon Pannoni, who formed the firm with George Watson based on their collective real estate and investment experience and the financial backing from a group of area investors.
Watson said they and the investors, whom he declined to name, “believe in Baltimore because we are from here, live here and work here.”
They plan to own the buildings for the long term. The Charles Street project was approved Tuesday by the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, or CHAP, though the panel did want so see some more details.
Its plan for the Grand Central site, to build an eight-story office building behind the Grand Central’s historic facade, has drawn positive feedback from area businesses and cultural establishments.
That’s partly because of its track record redeveloping a four-story rowhouse two doors away at 6 Eager St. The investors bought the property known as the Marburg House, the former home of businessman William A. Marburg, who helped develop Guilford, for $875,000 in 2016. The mansion was already carved up as offices, but the group refashioned it into boutique space and now 13 companies fill the building, called City House Eager.
Landmark replaced the HVAC and utility systems and upgraded tech capabilities. The company restored the stained glass window in the atrium and brought in marble from the same quarry where original stone came from in 1905.
The effort won them an award for historic preservation from the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association.
“Their City House on Eager restoration project was done to superlative standards, which is (unfortunately) extremely rare these days,” said Steve Shen, chair of the architectural review committee for the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, in an email.
Shen said the committee has given feedback to Landmark on the Charles Street project but hasn’t taken a position yet.
At the Grand Central building at 1001 Charles St., which will be renamed City House Charles, the developers made an offer when the owner was seeking to sell and retire. Landmark paid $1.4 million.
It had long been a popular nightclub for the LGBT community and some have expressed disappointment at the loss of a cultural institution. Landmark took over the liquor license for the spot but isn’t promising an exclusive environment. Officials said they hope to make it widely welcoming.
The first floor will be a cafe and lunch spot on one side with a bar and restaurant on the other. Upstairs, the developers plan to build eight floors of offices.
“We wanted to enhance the overall neighborhood, bring in new life and vitality,” Watson said. “We saw an opportunity to bring in office users to the Mount Vernon community, and bring in food concepts for those in the building and the residents.”
Work on the property is expected to begin later this year and take a year to 14 months to complete. About a quarter of the space is spoken for, but Watson declined to identify the tenant.
The third project, Guardian House, will fill three unused buildings at 17-23 Gay St., near Power Plant Live and the city police headquarters, which the developers bought from the city for $1.24 million after a bidding process through the Baltimore Development Corp.
The “project will inject new vitality and infuse an underutilized area of downtown with more energy,” said William H. Cole, the former president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corporation, at the time the buildings were awarded to Landmark. “This creative project meets our objectives for a quality development that will activate ground floor retail and generate tax revenue, while providing additional affordable housing options for families.”
Landmark plans to target first responders, including police and fire fighters and other municipal employees who work downtown and perhaps can’t afford some of the luxury apartment towers that have opened recently. Rents on the studio and one-bedroom apartments, the affordable ones and the market-rate ones, are not set.
Affordable units will go to those who earn up to 80% of the area median income.
Developers hope the work will revitalize the block with apartments and shops for coffee or sandwiches, and perhaps a dry cleaner requested by the community.
Others in the real estate community were glad to see attention to a long-ignored block, as well as investment in office space in Mount Vernon where there’s been little added.
“Downtown is not short on supply of these smaller 5-10,000 square-foot buildings that are either vacant, or underutilized,” said Terri Harrington, senior vice president at MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate Services. “I often talk about these smaller projects connecting like dots around the downtown.
“Block by block, investors like Landmark can alter the landscape and change the desirability of the neighborhood. Granted, Mount Vernon is already a great destination for residential, but the redevelopment on Gay Street can really be impactful because it’s just been kind of desolate in that block for a while.”
Landmark’s developers say they already have ideas for more projects.