Vote set for today on plan for waterfront building


An eight-month effort by the Schmoke administration to bring 300 jobs from the suburbs to downtown Baltimore faces a key vote today, when developers appear before the city's planning commission to seek approval for a $32 million waterfront building that would house the relocated office workers.

If the commission gives its consent, construction could begin by the end of the month on new corporate headquarters for Sylvan Learning Systems, a nationwide testing and tutoring organization now based in Columbia; and SkillsBank Corp., a Baltimore County-based developer of educational software.

Proposed by the Evans Co. of McLean, Va., and the Paterakis family of Baltimore, the project would also contain 122 apartments, 220 parking spaces and street-level retail space.

It would be the first major building in the Inner Harbor East development area, a 20-acre parcel between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, and the first new housing downtown since the 29-story HarborView Tower was completed in 1993.

The site is bounded by Lancaster, Aliceanna and Exeter streets and Central Avenue.

In the 1980s, the city received a $1.4 million federal grant to help build 100 apartments at President Street and Eastern Avenue, a project that never materialized. The Schmoke administration has received approval to use those funds to help build the residential portion of the Lancaster Street project, according to architect Peter Fillat of Beatty Harvey Fillat, the design team.

The rest of the financing will be raised by the Evans company.

During a presentation to community activists this week, the designers released drawings that show the project actually would consist of two buildings rising from a common platform containing parking and retail space.

A four-story, 100,000-square-foot office building would rise on the south side of the site, facing Lancaster Street and the harbor. An 11-story residential tower would rise at the northwest corner of the complex, overlooking Exeter and Aliceanna streets. The structures would be separated by a courtyard on the roof of the two-story parking platform.

Planning commission approval is needed because the lot on which the building will be constructed is larger than the one drawn up in the Inner Harbor East master plan approved by the Baltimore City Council. The earlier plan called for the eastern end the parcel to be divided into smaller city blocks more in keeping with the scale of Fells Point rather than the downtown business district.

Members of the development team say the original plan, while attractive on paper, would be difficult to implement given current market conditions. They say a larger site was needed to help attract Sylvan, SkillsBank and other companies that are accustomed to sprawling suburban buildings with large "floor plates."

Stanton Eckstut, lead designer of the nationally acclaimed master plan for Inner Harbor East, said yesterday he was not aware of the proposed changes and hopes they do not violate the spirit of the project.

"The plan is one that has been set up to be market-driven," he said. "We know there will have to be changes. But I would hope that the principles of scale and views and streets would remain in the eventual build out."

The first major building planned for construction within the city's federally designated Empowerment Zone, the building is on an ultrafast construction timetable.

Team members say they hope to complete the office portion in time for Sylvan to take occupancy by mid-1996. The company is expected to occupy 70,000 square feet of the building and move more than 250 employees from Columbia. SkillsBank is expected to lease 20,000 square feet for 72 employees.

Plans call for the apartment building to be completed soon after the offices, with rents for the one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from $700 to $1,100 per month.

The timing of the construction and the proposed design have drawn questions from two groups that have reviewed preliminary plans: the community activists and the city's Architectural Review Board.

At their meeting Tuesday, community residents voiced no objection to the office project and little objection to the idea of enlarging the site. But several said they were worried that the Paterakis-Evans team was adding 122 apartments while another developer is seeking to convert the former Bagby Furniture Co. building at Exeter and Fleet streets into 57 apartments.

They warned that the waterfront housing market is weak and that one project may fail if both are attempted at the same time. They suggested that the Inner Harbor East apartments would be more likely to succeed and the Bagby project would be more likely to fail, because it is in an older building and farther from the waterfront. They suggested that the Bagby site be put to a different use, such as parking.

"Where is the coordination here?" asked Richard Ingrao, representing the Little Italy Community Organization. "Everyone's going for the new and the glitzy, but at what cost? I'm a little concerned it's going to have a negative effect on Little Italy."

Members of Baltimore's Architecture Review Board, meanwhile, have expressed concern that the design may be inappropriately cheap-looking for the Inner Harbor setting. In a meeting June 1, several panelists said the design looked like a building that was better suited to the suburbs, where buildings typically are built for less, than downtown Baltimore. They cited the abundance of glass on the office portion and lack of brick and precast stone.

"I think it's a real question whether we should endorse this -- not because of the master plan variations but because of the surface treatment," panelist Colden Florance told the architects. "The budget you've got has rendered the skin so that it's so minimalist I can't see that it's urban at all. It's so suburban."

Mr. Florance said he was especially troubled since this building will set a tone for future Inner Harbor East projects. "I think that, philosophically, it's really questionable for this location. The building needs more solidity to it."

The planning commission meeting will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the eighth-floor meeting room at 414 E. Fayette St.

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