BRIGHT LIGHT IN GLOOMY TIMES HarborView demand is surprisingly strong


Recession? What recession?

Doom and gloom may prevail elsewhere on the economic horizon, but you'd never know it by visiting the oasis known as HarborView, a 42-acre waterfront community now taking shape along the south shore of Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

In the first three weeks of sales for their $90 million, 254-unit first tower, HarborView's developers have taken 68 reservations representing between $18 million and $20 million worth of real estate sales.

They also have drawn 250 to 500 people every weekend to the sales center and yacht club at 500 HarborView Drive, and dozens more during the week.

The initial demand has been so strong that the development team headed by Richard Swirnow already has increased prices of certain units by as much as $20,000 -- a sign that those units are becoming scarce.

Even the sales representatives say they are surprised by the initial response, given the gloomy real estate climate.

"We have had an enormously positive response," said Herbert Emmerman, president of Equity Marketing Services, the broker for HarborView. "We've seen a very diverse group of people, representing a variety of ages and incomes. . . . We're writing contracts as fast as we can.

"We're extremely encouraged," said Edward Vinson, regional sales director for Equity. "If you and I were to listen to and absorb everything in the media, we would think there's no opportunity here for anything, that it's all doom and gloom. But that's not the reality. People are coming here on their lunch break, after work. We're absolutely overwhelmed with the response."

The 27-story first tower, called 100 HarborView Drive, is under construction at the end of a large pier that lines up with Cross Street in South Baltimore. With prices ranging from $129,000 to $1.25 million, it will be ready for occupancy in mid-1992.

The tower will be the first phase of a waterfront community that eventually will have up to 1,590 residences, including town houses and "pier houses" as well as midrise and high-rise condominiums, shops, offices and a 400-slip marina.

To reserve a residence at HarborView, a buyer is required to deposit $5,000. The reservation can be converted into a sales contract if the buyer puts down 5 percent of the cost of the residence shortly after making the initial deposit. The actual sale takes place when the residences are ready for occupancy.

So far, the developers say, most of the buyers and prospects are coming from Baltimore and suburbs -- the area within a 20-mile radius of the Inner Harbor.

But a significant portion of the traffic -- almost 25 percent -- is coming from the Baltimore-Washington corridor and metropolitan Washington, including Chevy Chase and Fairfax, Va. Actual buyers have come from as far away as Long Island, N.Y.; York, Pa.; Arlington, Va.; and Romney, W. Va.

Most developments, by contrast, draw 95 percent of their buyers from within a 5-mile radius. And some condominiums take a year or more to get 68 sales.

"We're finding out that it's a pretty wide market," said Stuart Hettleman, vice president of HarborView Properties. "It's not from any one area. You can't say all these people are coming out of Roland Park."

Mr. Hettleman said the developers were especially hoping to draw buyers from the Washington area and the Baltimore-Washington corridor and have been happy with the response.

"We knew we needed to draw from that area to expand our market, and so far that's what we've been able to do," he said.

According to preliminary sales figures released by the developers, 31.8 percent of the buyers have come from Baltimore; 27 percent from the suburbs; and 22.4 percent from the Washington metropolitan area and the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

The early sales figures also show that:

* 34 percent of the buyers earn more than $150,000 a year; 20 percent earn between $100,000 and $150,000; 20 percent earn between $76,000 and $100,000, and 10 percent earn $75,000 or less. The rest gave no figure.

* 59 percent of the buyers own detached residences; 27.3 percent own condominiums; and the rest own town houses or rent apartments.

* 43.1 percent of the buyers are couples without children, 25 percent are single, and 9 percent are couples with children. The rest fall into other categories, such as people who are divorced or widowed.

* 29.5 percent of the buyers are 41 to 50 years old; 27.3 percent are 51 to 60; 13.6 percent are over 60; and 11 percent are 30 to 40. The rest are under 30 or did not give their ages.

Sales agent Kevin McDuffie said he has been intrigued to see a number of prospective buyers coming from other developments around Baltimore's waterfront, including Harbor Court, Scarlett Place and the Anchorage project in Canton.

To them, he said, HarborView is part of a second generation of housing around the harbor and a logical place to consider if they are thinking about moving up from their first harbor-front residence. "They were the pioneers," he said. "They already know they want to live downtown, and we're benefiting from that."

Mr. Emmerman said one of the more unusual sales was to a family that bought three residences. The mother bought one, a son bought one next to her, and another son bought a unit on the floor below.

"They all bought the same house," he said. "Bing, bing, bing. Both sons have wives and children. They all thought it would be nice to live together."

The developers said from the beginning that they would raise prices as soon as they sold a certain percentage of residences within any category. For example, if they originally had 12 units with a certain floor plan and sold six, they might increase prices beginning with the seventh, then increase them again beginning with the ninth.

Mr. Emmerman said the price increases have ranged from 1 percent to 7 percent of the original pre-construction prices and are part of the team's general fine-tuning of prices to reflect demand.

Some prices also are being raised or lowered as the developers see what the market response is to the units on the south side of the building as compared with the north side, which has views of the downtown skyline, he said.

Mr. Emmerman said he attributes the strong initial sales largely to the opening of the $5 million sales center Sept. 16. Inside are two full-sized, fully furnished model units and a computerized video display that shows people what the views will be from any residence in the tower.

Such features were expensive but a wise investment, he said, because they help give buyers a good feel for a building that hasn't bee constructed, he said.

"Buying housing is an emotional decision," he said. "People buy with their gut, not with their head, and they usually want to look at a place, touch it, feel it. It's hard to sell a hole in the ground. But here we have been able to allow them to see it and touch it so that they feel like they've seen enough.

Mr. Emmerman said there are essentially two kinds of buyers: those in a position to plan now and those who won't make a decision until they need immediate shelter.

"We're getting people who are more set, more ordered," he said. "They know where their money is going to come from two years from now."

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