35-story tower ready to sprout ; Skyscraper: Its prospects may have brightened, but the long-planned building at 1 Light St. remains touched by controversy.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Now or never.

Joe Clarke isn't quite so absolute in his thinking, but he knows that the area's healthy economy and business expansions give him the best chance in a decade to get a long-planned skyscraper at 1 Light St. downtown out of the ground.

The political winds are blowing in his favor, too. Thanks to tax breaks granted in June worth $6.1 million and a $16.1 million city loan to construct parking spaces, Clarke's 35-story One Light Street could be the first significant new office tower added to Baltimore's skyline since 1991.

The president of J. J. Clarke Enterprises Inc. and partner Capital Guidance Corp. of Geneva, Switzerland, also have requested "payment in lieu of taxes" (PILOT) incentives that would shave another $9.5 million in property taxes off the project over the next decade.

If granted by the city's economic development agency and approved by the City Council, the PILOT would make the project even more feasible because it would cut $3 per square foot off rents in the project's 377,000-square-foot office component, the developers contend.

For the 58-year-old Clarke, the proposed $120 million building has taken on towering proportions as well. For instance, One Light Street -- which has yet to begin construction -- is already a project at which he has labored longer than any other single job he has held.

The 980,000-square-foot building also would be the largest single project on which he has ever worked, and, if completed by the end of 2001 as projected, would cap a decade-long endeavor for Clarke.

"I see this in the context of all of downtown," Clarke said. "Everything has its time."

One Light Street also has potentially great significance to the city. Unlike commercial projects that for the past two decades have shifted businesses toward the Inner Harbor, Clarke's skyscraper could provide a critical link between Charles Center and the waterfront, analysts believe.

Moreover, the project -- set to contain a 267-room Embassy Suites hotel, a 660-space parking garage, 15 floors of office space and 18,000 square feet of ground-floor retail -- would help create more than 500 new jobs and generate about $3.3 million a year in amusement, hotel and other taxes. The buildings currently occupying the One Light Street site pay $135,000 per year in property taxes.

"I think this project is more important to the city of Baltimore than any other currently in development or planned in the near future," said Richard P. Manekin, the Manekin Bros. Abeshouse principal whom Clarke has retained to lease One Light Street's office space.

"It combines three needed components and links the Inner Harbor to the traditional central business district."

But the long-awaited project isn't without controversy, and not just because One Light Street is slated to receive millions in city subsidies.

For starters, Clarke and his backers plan to rip down the 81-year-old Southern Hotel, a one-time city landmark that has not had any guests since the Beatles first came to America.

Demolition crews are already working to raze the hotel, one of six buildings bounded by Light, Redwood, Baltimore and Grant streets that will have to come down to make way for One Light Street.

Furthermore, preservationists have complained because Clarke may demolish the existing structures without tenants for the office portion of the project, leaving One Light Street less of a signature building and more of a parking lot.

'Endlessly patient'

But Clarke is accustomed to controversy, and waiting.

"He is endlessly patient," said Wally Orlinsky, former Baltimore City Council president and a close friend of Clarke's. "I think a lot of it has to do with his faith. But one shouldn't mistake that for a lack of steel."

J. Joseph Clarke was born in Baltimore in the closing days of 1940, to the son of an executive with meat packer Swift & Co.

Clarke's father was ambitious and successful, and was promoted often. But promotions meant transfers, so Clarke spent his youth moving from Baltimore to Salisbury to New York to Philadelphia, graduating from a Roman Catholic high school and St. Joseph's College there to pursue teaching.

It was in Philadelphia that he met Mary Pat Hines at a St. Patrick's Day dance in 1956. They were married seven years later, and when Mary Pat -- who would later become president of the Baltimore City Council and a mayoral candidate -- became pregnant with the first of their four children, Clarke abandoned teaching for a promotions job with the local NBC-TV affiliate.

And back to Baltimore

The public relations job eventually led Clarke back to Baltimore, where he worked at sales and promotions at WCBM 680 AM.

Back in his hometown, the Clarkes became active in the New Democratic Club, a liberal political organization that would spawn candidates and officeholders such as former Mayor Clarence Du Burns and former Public Service Commission Chairman-turned-BGE Executive Vice President Frank O. Heintz.

"We were all '60s people; you couldn't get away from it," Clarke said. "We all had all the Beatles records, and we were all activists."

In 1970, the activist turned political candidate, and Clarke lost a bid for a state Senate seat. Along the way, he became politically connected. Former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, for instance, is not only a tenant in one of Clarke's buildings but also a friend.

"I cared a lot about the city, but in the job I was in, I was always caught in the middle," Clarke said. "As a member of the media, you couldn't ever really get involved."

Clarke found a way to get involved in May 1972, when he began a three-year stint running the city's United Way campaign. A job as associate executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee followed, until Clarke was forced out in the spring of 1977, essentially for being married to a City Council member who opposed the plans for public transportation that the economic development group backed.

A Sun editorial cartoon at the time, showing Clarke's head on a platter being held by a "king" meant to depict the GBC hierarchy, read: "Your crime was marriage, or guilt by association." Today, the cartoon hangs on a wall in Clarke's office.

With the GBC setback behind him, Clarke went to work at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he cut his teeth in real estate development.

"He's very charming, intelligent and well-read," said Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation and a former HUD assistant secretary, who carpooled with Clarke to Washington when the two worked at the agency.

"He's interested in what's going on in the world, he's patient and he's tenacious."

Clarke calls the commute from his Canterbury-Tuscany townhouse in North Baltimore -- across the street from his 91-year-old mother -- the single best experience of his life. "Never a dull moment," he recalled.

Clarke began his private-sector real estate career in 1980, when he went to work for New England developer Corcoran, Mullins, Jennison Inc., constructing multifamily projects.

After five years there, Clarke struck out on his own and developed $15 million worth of projects in three years, including the 276-unit Calvert's Walk Apartments in Bel Air and townhomes in the city.

In Clarke's mind, the bubble was about to burst, however, so he hooked up with the residential development arm of the Trammell Crow Co., a Houston-based firm that at the time was the nation's largest developer.

"I got scared because I could borrow incredible amounts of money with my signature alone," Clarke said. "They were large, and stable."

Clarke spent four years at Trammell Crow Residential Inc., building $25 million worth of apartments in Owings Mills, Columbia and Gaithersburg. It was while at Crow that Clarke first became acquainted with One Light Street.

At the time, though, the project was planned as a colossal 45-story edifice containing 750,000 square feet of office space, designed to become a headquarters for bank holding company MNC Financial Inc.

But just as Clarke predicted, the 1980s building boom went bust as the decade ended. MNC Financial imploded and so eventually did Crow, and the developer closed up shop in Baltimore in 1992, after a successful run building suburban offices and industrial buildings and the 24-story First Union Tower at 7 St. Paul St. downtown.

When Crow left, however, the $20 million investment in the six buildings slated to become One Light Street remained, as did Capital Guidance's interest in the site. Clarke stepped in.

With Baltimore in the depths of a commercial real estate depression in the early 1990s and no large tenants to capture, Clarke busied himself with multifamily projects and other interests, including teaching graduate-level real estate courses at the Johns Hopkins University.

"As a professor, Joe Clarke brings a wealth of background and experience," said J. Joseph Casey, chief executive officer of real estate firm Casey & Associates Inc. and a former student of Clarke's who went on to earn a master's degree from Hopkins. "He's able to articulate superbly, and he's a student of urban development. He was one of the best instructors I had."

While teaching, Clarke continued to pitch One Light Street to the few prospective tenants. Alex. Brown Inc. gave it a look, as did First Maryland Bancorp. Clarke's project was a bridesmaid both times.

Closer to reality

Today, One Light Street is closer to reality, especially if Clarke is able to persuade the City Council that tax breaks are warranted for the 15 floors of the project's office space. With the breaks, Clarke would be able to shave rents from $28 per square foot to $25 per square foot.

And with New York publisher John Wiley considering the project for a possible relocation in 2003, One Light Street might finally land the "trophy" tenant it has been hoping to find. Wiley would likely lease 300,000 square feet in One Light Street, should it move, to accommodate about 900 headquarters employees.

"The issue is how much can be added to the assessable base of the city and when it will be added," Clarke said. "We need the PILOT to be competitive with other real estate on the market."

Area real estate experts wonder, though, whether even the tax breaks would be enough to make the project viable in a market where demand for new office space isn't surging, and where office development has shifted toward the Inner Harbor.

"They have their work cut out for them," Casey said. "What makes it daunting is that the companies you could traditionally count on for space, the banks, accounting firms, etc., their real estate decisions aren't being made locally anymore.

"Still, if they can get off the ground, I think it'll be accepted by the marketplace. There aren't a lot of opportunities to rent space in A-plus buildings downtown."

But Clarke won't even ponder failing.

"We're not going to get diverted," he said. "One way or another, we're going to get it going."

Now or never.

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