CONDO CASTLE Exclusive high-rise in Columbia offers urban amenities


Despite the soft waters of an economic recession, Watermark Place has waded in with the newest and most expensive of suburban Baltimore condominiums.

The development rises near the Columbia Mall like a post-modern castle above a canopy of trees. With 12 stories awash in trendy beige and mauve, Watermark is a hard-to-miss oddity among Columbia's tradition of three-bedroom colonials, townhouses and garden apartments.

For many, it is a sign that Columbia has come of age, offering a lifestyle and exclusivity once reserved for the well-heeled urban dweller.

The trappings are there.

With 76 units, lake view, a one-bedroom at Watermark can sell tTC for as low as $180,000, but its penthouses have gone for as high as $600,000. The price, plus fees, includes services that range from a doorman, porter and concierge to private spa, pool and party room.

It is not the most expensive nor the most posh of condominiums in the Baltimore-Washington market. Comparable in price to the Saint James on Charles Street in Baltimore, Watermark does not approach the luxury and grandeur of Somerset House in Chevy Chase, where the most opulent digs sell for $2.75 million.

But Watermark had enough to attract the likes of Jonathan Gephart, a 32-year-old computer analyst, whose professionally decorated patio unit is a stone's throw from Watermark's private, tree-lined pool area.

Gephart says he likes his suburban surroundings -- "being close to malls and shopping and not being worried where I park my car" -- but he hopes that Columbia will one day come alive with adult nightclubs, trendy restaurants and expensive stores.

Little of that is present now, but Columbia's planners promise a future that will include an expanded Columbia Mall with a pricier anchor store, surrounded by high-rise office, residential and commercial buildings and a bevy of night spots.

Watermark, they say, could herald the beginning of that trend.

Still, residents who live near Watermark are scratching their heads in wonder.

"I'm not completely sure why anyone would spend that kind of money to live in Columbia," says Ken Firestone, chairman of the village association in Wilde Lake.

Watermark's pool, spa and exercise room duplicate services offered to residents through the Columbia Association, Firestone says. The association, born of a philosophy of offering services to residents regardless of income, is supported through a levied property fee plus membership dues that are often at or below market rate.

"Sure, it's exclusive," Firestone says of Watermark. "But a lot of Columbians resent that kind of thing."

Phil Tierney, a former village board member, was among residents who forced Watermark's developers to scale back the building's height and configuration. But when he and his wife were looking for the perfect retirement home, they opted to move to a Bethesda condominium, closer to the culture and diversity of Washington.

Tierney remains skeptical about how true a city Columbia will ever become. "Until they get a mass transit system out there, it's going to be more suburban than urban," he says.

Fritzi Kolker, a real estate analyst at Legg Mason, says Watermark represents a test for 23-year-old Columbia.

"Condominium developments do well in mature, ripe communities," Kolker says, adding that the classic profile of a condominium buyer is a person at or near retirement age who is comfortable with the community and wants to stay there.

"Watermark is different," she adds. "People who've lived in Columbia for 20 years are the first settlers. They don't have parents or grandparents who lived there. They came from other places and many of them will probably return to those places.

"To buy at Watermark means that you're going to be living there another 20 years," she says.

With the real estate market in a slump, some say developments such as Watermark may be the only ones that are recession-proof, because buyers of homes in the higher price ranges are theoretically more immune to dips in the economy.

But sales in luxury condos have been slow in recent months, with one executive for Watermark reporting that 99 percent of recent walk-throughs were "just tire-kickers."

Some other luxury condominiums in the area have also reported slow sales.

Pikesville's Pavilion in the Park went on the auction block in 1989 to try and boost sales that stopped at 20 units. Today, 45 units are reported sold, Kolker says.

Meanwhile, McKinsey Park, a garden-style project in Severna Park, has less than 50 percent of its 103 units under contract and has yet to break ground. Units there are being offered for $265,000 to $350,000.

In response to the market, officials at Watermark are offering to buy the current home of prospective buyers as an incentive to sign a contract, says Stephanie Rezaiyan, vice president of General American Real Estate and Development Inc.

The company also guarantees it will buy back, at the original price, any condominium that a resident is not satisfied with after three years.

So far, 43 units have sold, 66 percent of the total. Rezaiyan estimates that Watermark is getting about four serious prospects a week.

Whether the developer's guarantees will overcome buyer fears is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, Rezaiyan says, "This takes some of the risk out of buying. It means the buyer hasn't lost anything, but it also means we're positive that the real estate market in three years is going to be such that this project will increase in value."

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