Downtown Baltimore had a decent year in 2018 — not great, but not bad — according to an annual scorecard be released Tuesday morning by the Downtown Partnership.
Office vacancies rose a little, retail spending dropped a lot, but new office and apartment towers opened where there were once parking lots and more people live and work downtown. Not too shabby, considering the negative headlines that some city leaders feel Baltimore can’t seem to shake.
“Because of the more negative news, I wanted people to walk away with the understanding that many positive developments occurred last year,” said Kirby Fowler, president of the partnership, which has in the last two decades overseen the city center’s transformation from an aging office park to a mixed-use neighborhood with more residents than ever. “More buildings came online and more people move into live or work and those are good things for the health of downtown. I’d like to see more of it and that’s our challenge.”
News inside and outside of Baltimore has largely not centered on the largest apartment building ever constructed in the city at 414 Light Street or a big new office tower at One Light Street anchored by M&T Bank. Fowler acknowledged that the headlines have been about the slide that began in 2015 with unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man, in police custody.
The worst headlines last year revolved around murders in the city that have hit annual records above 300 and the police department’s disarray amid federal oversight, prosecutions and turn over in leadership. Downtown has not been immune for crime, though homicides are rare.
A new group of property managers and owners organized to add their voice to demands long made by the Downtown Partnership for more of a police presence to counter what is mostly cell phone thefts and assaults. They also called for maintenance to lights and sidewalks and a reduction of litter.
The negative news continued into 2019 with allegations that Mayor Catherine Pugh improperly benefited from a book deal with the University of Maryland Medical System while she was a board member.
Still, investors, developers and tenants keep showing faith in downtown, said Fowler in an interview ahead of the group’s annual meeting to release the State of Downtown report.
Others at the annual meeting of the Downtown Partnership at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore also said they see a lot of positives in the report and their own reviews.
Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Baltimore City Council president, said he found while investigating the new police commissioner that the popular tourist city of New Orleans had 17.7 million visitors in 2017 while Baltimore had more than 26 million.
Dr. Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore and chair of the partnership, said crime remained a problem for Baltimore that could prevent the city from reaching its full potential. But he said the report “brings balance” and shows the city is nonetheless “making significant progress” in attracting workers and residents downtown.
The one-mile radius of the city center is 4 percent of the geographic territory but now contains 29 percent of the city’s businesses and 35 percent of the jobs.
“There is no denying that the downtown Baltimore neighborhood is bringing investment, jobs and enthusiasm to a city that needs it,” Perman said. “Baltimore needs good stories.”
Fowler added there was a 27 percent drop in violent crime in the first two months of this year. He and others said they are working on getting more police foot patrols to make visitors, workers and residents feel safe.
A 2017 report commissioned by the partnership found there was room for roughly 7,000 more apartment units over five years in the group’s coverage area — within a one-mile radius from Pratt and Light streets. There have been 2,543 apartments added since that assessment, according to partnership data.
Among the report’s findings:
«About 42,910 people now live in that one-mile radius of the city center, which includes Mount Vernon in the north, Little Italy and Harbor East in the east, Federal Hill in the south and Ridgely’s Delight to the west. That’s about 300 more people than in 2017 and ranks Baltimore’s downtown as the 11th most populous among larger cities. Not including those buildings that just opened, occupancy is about 96.5 percent.
«Average rents now range from $1,300 to more than $2,150, depending on the size, and some of the more upscale units are advertised for thousands more. Average household income downtown is $101,057, which ranked downtown Baltimore as 14th wealthiest out of the largest 25 U.S. cities.
«New retail openings downtown are dominated by restaurants. Fowler said the national outlook for other types of retailers is tough, given competition from e-commerce companies, which contributed to the area’s retail sales sliding 10 percent to $1.12 billion.
«Nearly 700 more people worked downtown last year — 119,690 total — than the year before, even though the office vacancy rate inched higher. Office space was 83.1 percent leased last year, down from 85.3 percent in 2017. That’s below the city as a whole, the metro area and the nation.
«About 30 percent of the jobs downtown are in health care and social assistance, followed by 15 percent in public administration and 13 percent in professional, scientific and technical services.
All told, Fowler called the numbers only “modest gains” from last year. And with many economists predicting something of a slowdown across the country, it’s not clear what further headwinds Baltimore will face as apartments and offices already in the pipeline continue to open in the city center.
But those small gains in residential growth and employment growth are not to be discounted, he said.
“They were not gigantic, but increases nonetheless,” he said. “We are maintaining our rankings compared with the rest of the country and that’s something to be proud of. We’re staying with the pack.”