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Landmark escapes wrecking ball; Structure: Baltimore officials believe they can build a financial district parking garage without razing a 1905 office building.


A LANDMARK ON Redwood Street that once appeared destined for demolition apparently has been spared from the wrecking ball.

After months of studies, Baltimore officials say they believe they have found a way to build a parking garage near the heart of the city's financial district without tearing down one of its most significant structures, a former office building at 131 E. Redwood St.

Owners of the vacant eight-story building, once headquarters for the company that became USF&G; Corp., have been working on plans to raze it and a 12-story annex at 26 S. Calvert St. to make way for a 500-car garage that could be a base for an office tower.

But city officials have come up with an alternate plan that would spare the Redwood Street building by shifting the garage south.

The new plan would require the demolition of six smaller buildings that are deemed to have less architectural significance than the former USF&G; headquarters. It would create a "footprint" for a garage that would rise seven or eight stories and provide parking space for 440 to 500 cars.

At the request of Baltimore Development Corp., City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III introduced legislation this month that would authorize the city to acquire the six properties needed to build the garage.

The addresses are: 26, 30, 32, 34 and 36 S. Calvert St. and 117 Water St., a building that is also known as 31-35 Grant St.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, BDC president, said his office has been struggling to achieve two potentially conflicting goals: providing adequate off-street parking in the vicinity of Calvert and Redwood streets and preserving and rejuvenating older buildings that are worth saving.

This plan, he said, represents the corporation's best efforts to strike a balance between the two objectives.

"To the extent that we can satisfy the demand for parking and reuse old buildings, we would like to do that," Brodie said. "We think this is a reasonably sized garage that works, in terms of ingress and egress, and gives us the opportunity to recycle" 131 E. Redwood.

It's not an easy challenge, Brodie said, because if a garage is too large, it could mean the demolition of too many key buildings, and if it's too small, it won't meet the demand for parking space or be cost-efficient to operate.

"There's always a push and pull," he said. "How big is too big? It's never easy to do, but we're trying. It is a real balancing act, because a garage that is below a certain number of spaces doesn't work. We think this is a balance."

If the City Council passes the property acquisition bill this spring, the Calvert Street project could be the first of several garages to be constructed as part of a city campaign to provide additional off-street parking throughout the downtown area, either in the form of freestanding garages or as part of mixed-use complexes.

The city has targeted $75 million to build downtown garages, including $12 million to acquire land, relocate tenants and build a garage near Calvert and Redwood streets. If the council bill passes, the city will issue a request around midyear for proposals from groups that wish to design and build the garage, possibly with retail space at street level.

Brodie and Andrew Frank, a senior development director for BDC, said the city would like to see construction of the Calvert Street garage begin by this fall and be completed by late 2000.

"We want to try to get it done quickly and competitively," Frank said.

The former USF&G; Corp. building is owned by the Orion Group of Baltimore and Laurel. Designed for the United States Fidelity and Guaranty Co. by Otto Simonson, it was built in 1905, and expanded in 1910. USF&G; Corp. occupied it until the mid-1970s, when the company moved to a tower at Pratt and Light streets. It has been vacant for several years.

Orion partner Brad Tavel said he was aware of the pending City Council legislation but referred questions about it to another Orion executive, who was not available to comment.

Brodie said the city is willing to work with Orion on plans to fix the Redwood Street building for a new use, such as housing or offices. If Orion does not move ahead with plans of its own, he said, the city has the authority to acquire the building and offer it to groups that would like to redevelop it.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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