The Abell Foundation, in an effort to attract new city residents, has provided a $25,000 grant to a group of business and city leaders to study the potential of converting older city office buildings to housing.
The nonprofit group's funding to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore Inc. comes on the heels of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's announcement last month that the issue should receive attention as part of an overall downtown revitalization effort.
"Our inclination is to find ways to convert some of these older buildings to residences, but we're open to various possibilities, including demolition," said Laurie Schwartz, president of the Downtown Partnership. "Unless some proactive steps are taken, the majority of these buildings will continue to sit and deteriorate."
Since overbuilding led to a collapse of the local commercial real estate market six years ago, the city's Class B office structures -- buildings more than 25 years old that lack parking and other amenities of modern skyscrapers -- have suffered tremendously. In fact, nearly one-quarter of downtown's Class B space is unoccupied, one of the highest vacancy rates in the nation and enough to fill six 28-story Legg Mason Towers.
If successful, the six-month study could result in significant changes to the city's zoning code to allow conversions to take place, Ms. Schwartz said.
"We want to save some of these buildings and get people downtown, so we thought it was a good idea," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a former commissioner of the city's Housing and Community Development (HCD) agency.
"We want to see what's necessary and see what can be done."
Critics of the conversion plans cite the enormous costs of turning offices into apartments, including providing parking and security. Most believe conversions won't be economically feasible without government-sponsored incentives.
Other old East Coast cities, most notably Philadelphia and New York, have already completed studies or are working to convert old structures. In Philadelphia, the Pew Charitable Trusts financed a similar $50,000 study on the possibility of converting 10 office buildings to housing, while incentives in New York have shaved as much as $500 off monthly market rents.
In addition to the Downtown Partnership, representatives from the city's HCD agency, Baltimore Development Corp., Planning Department and the Greater Baltimore Committee will participate in the report.