Plaza plans in the works Hopkins' departure from Charles site opens door for redevelopment; New owner added to mix; After transaction, Southern to consider entertainment center


Now that the Johns Hopkins University plans to move its Downtown Center to Charles and Fayette streets in Baltimore, leaders of the effort to revitalize Charles Street say the university's present location should be redeveloped as a regional attraction to help revitalize the corridor.

Since 1987, Hopkins' Downtown Center has been the lead tenant of Charles Plaza, a 13-year-old retail complex at Charles and Saratoga streets.

For more than two years, a group led by businessmen Jimmy Rouse and Kemp Byrnes has been promoting a visionary plan to tear down the two-story structure and rebuild the corner as an urban entertainment center with retailers, restaurants and a cinema complex that could draw patrons from the region.

They would like to attract a branch of the new art-house theater chain by Sundance Cinemas, a joint venture of actor-director-producer Robert Redford and General Cinemas. Plans for a Sundance complex in west Philadelphia call for six to eight theaters, a public meeting area, video library, child care center, restaurant, outdoor cafe, bar, art gallery, jazz club and rooms for filmmakers to edit footage.

The redevelopment plans for Charles Plaza could not be carried out with Hopkins as a tenant. Because Hopkins intends to occupy the former Hamburger's clothing store by fall 2000, Rouse and Byrnes say, the move will free the Charles Plaza site so it can be redeveloped as a strong anchor for retail activity.

"This is the point we've been working toward for 2 1/2 years," Rouse said. "Now the plaza is devoid of major tenants" and can be redeveloped.

New owner emerges

Another key to the redevelopment of Charles Plaza is the emergence of a potential new owner for the property.

The 36,000-square-foot Charles Plaza complex was acquired at a foreclosure auction last month for $800,000 by Provident Bank of Maryland, holder of the first mortgage.

Provident agreed to sell Charles Plaza for an undisclosed sum to Southern Management Corp., a Virginia company that owns the 400-unit Charles Towers apartments on the same block and many apartments downtown. Southern has the property under contract, pending court ratification of the sale to Provident.

David Hillman, chairman of Southern, said he wanted to gain control of the property to protect the company's investment at Charles Towers. Although Southern does not specialize in retail development, he said, his company is prepared to resell or lease Charles Plaza to a group that could carry out the redevelopment, which would benefit Charles Towers and Charles Street.

Hillman said Southern controls another 38,000 square feet of commercial space at the base of Charles Towers, which could be combined with the Charles Plaza property to create one large redevelopment project.

"My motivation is not to make any money on this transaction," Hillman said. "I just want to make sure that what happens on Charles Street enhances our two residential towers. We've done well with them, and we want to continue to do well."

Designed by Cho, Wilks and Benn and built for $2.9 million, Charles Plaza opened in 1985 with a half-dozen specialty stores, a food court and a restaurant around an open plaza. Hopkins' School of Continuing Studies arrived two years later, but much of Charles Plaza's retail space is vacant.

Mix of shops, attractions

Rouse and Byrnes asked the local design firm Brown & Craig to develop plans showing how Charles Plaza might be reconstructed if Hopkins left. Brown & Craig came up with plans for a denser mix of shops and attractions, built out to Charles Street and connected by escalator to Center Plaza, south of Charles Plaza. A five-theater cinema complex would be on the second level, with an interior pedestrian street linking Charles Street with Center Plaza.

That development was seen as the catalyst for a more sweeping plan to transform five blocks of Charles Street -- from Fayette to Centre streets -- into a bustling retail corridor. Planners say there could be up to 150,000 square feet of retail space around Center Plaza; 150,000 square feet in a rebuilt Charles Plaza; and 200,000 square feet in buildings lining the 100 to 500 blocks of Charles St.

Some reservations

Hillman said he has reservations about the preliminary plans because they showed buildings that could block views and access to Charles Towers from Charles Street. He said he agreed with the reasoning behind the plan and believes its elements could be incorporated into a project on the 1.2-acre Charles Plaza property.

Hillman said he expects Southern to complete its acquisition of Charles Plaza by year's end. After the transaction is complete, he said, he will be able to bring in a developer to decide how to redevelop Charles Plaza.

Rouse said the redevelopment of Charles Plaza could be the key to improving links between the Inner Harbor and the Mount Vernon historic district because it is located where newer high-rise buildings meet older low-rise structures.

It's also where Charles Street meets Center Plaza, which connects to Lexington Street and Howard Street.

"There's a natural connection," he said. "It's just a matter of redesigning it."

Pub Date: 11/23/98

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