City puttin' on the Ritz

The rooftop terraces will be bigger than many suburban townhouses.

Private elevators from the underground garage will take residents directly to their living quarters.


Security will be by thumbprint scan.

Among other amenities will be 24-hour room and around-the-clock housekeeping services. Even baby-sitting will be offered for the asking.


There's the luxury spa and gym as well as a library lounge.

Pools and landscaped English gardens.

There are also condominium fees that will exceed many people's home mortgages.

Those who purchase will enjoy a "pampered, privileged existence."

And the views from most of the 97 condominium units will look back across the Inner Harbor to a city that less than a generation ago could never think of itself as world class.

Well, wake up, Baltimore. You're about to be mentioned in the same breath with Key Biscayne, Georgetown, Central Park South and Boston Commons - the Ritz is coming to town.

The Residences at the Ritz-Carlton is the condominium portion of the $156 million, 225-room hotel project along Key Highway next to Federal Hill that is being developed by L.I. Square Corp. and managed by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

With all the flair and lavishness that a Ritz-Carlton brings in services and amenities, it will also bring the highest prices for residential housing in Baltimore history by the time of its opening, projected for spring 2003.


The lowest-priced condominium is $475,000 for a one-bedroom, 1 1/2 -bathroom unit.

The most expensive penthouses, featuring rooftop terraces, three bedrooms, a den and family room, will hit the $3 million mark.

Overall, there are 24 floor plans spread over two six-story and two four-story connector buildings, featuring units from 1,250 to 6,000 square feet.

'Flurry of activity'

Yet, so far, it seems that the million-dollar price tags haven't made Baltimore wince.

Ever since overnight packages were sent in mid-February to a select 120 customers, 30 reservations, each secured by a refundable $25,000 deposit and representing nearly $40 million in sales, have been taken, according to Edward V. Giannasca II, president and chief executive officer for L.I. Square.


"We've been overwhelmed by the flurry of activity," Giannasca said.

"The first four reservations that we have were penthouses," said T. Ross Mackesey, head of new home sales for O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA, which is the exclusive broker representative for the Residences.

"Since that time we have done several more, but we are now getting a cross-section through the door on a daily basis," he said.

He added that one buyer has reserved two lower-level end units - at a total price of $3.6 million - to join together for one regal residence.

Ritz officials won't reveal who's putting money down on the Ritz - not even to other prospective buyers - but Mackesey dismissed the notion that it is all an elite corps of executives.

"This is not totally an over-60 crowd, by no means," Mackesey said. "We go from late 30s to 70-plus category. Our mean age is probably the late 50s."


Said John G. Evans, president of O'Conor, Piper & Flynn ERA: "Nothing else in this area has brought this kind of attention to something like this in Baltimore before. People who I might not have expected to be purchasers are purchasers here."

Past projects stumbled

Yes, the Ritz has come roaring out of the gate, but Baltimore's streets are filled with condominium projects that took reservations with great fanfare, only to be snubbed when it came to turning reservations into reality with signed contracts.

Harbor Court. The Colonnade. The St. James. Canton Cove. Scarlett Place. HarborView. At one point or another all had to be rethought, repriced or remarketed. According to those who were on the front lines, Baltimore, unlike other urban centers, has never embraced a condominium project. It's a townhouse city. Not a condo place, they say.

But this time, even the most skeptical believe the powerful allure of the Ritz, sitting on the Inner Harbor waterfront, will be a success.

They point to the Ritz name, the continued strength of the Inner Harbor real estate market, the lack of luxury condominiums and a change in attitude fostered by a new economy that is evolving in Baltimore. Simply, factors that were not present when the other condominium projects came on line in the past 25 years are now in play.


"We are not just selling bricks and sticks," said Mackesey. "We are selling a lifestyle package of services of which [purchasers] are already aware. And in many cases, they know it better than we know it."

Mal Sherman, a veteran real estate consultant whose experience rolls from the days of James Rouse to Bill Struever, has seen the struggles that condominium developers have faced in the past. But this time, with a project carrying the Ritz stamp, he is optimistic.

"The cachet of the Ritz means a lot more than the cachet of the Inn at the Colonnade or even the Polo Grill," Sherman said.

"This is like an ego trip. If you are a professional, working in Baltimore, you are living at the Residences at the Ritz, and you can [treat] your guests or business acquaintances. ... It is like your own Center Club."

In addition, Giannasca, who came to the project last year after serving as vice president and project manager of the HarborView development company for the past decade, put in place a strategy early on that he hopes will ensure that this condominium project would not flop.

In past condominium offerings, most developers shunned the local real estate community, choosing instead to form their own sales team. Giannasca, however, embraced Realtors by putting together a high-powered broker advisory group, which gave him advice on everything from floor plans to pricing.


"I think they were wise," said Tim Rodgers, president of Hill & Co., a Cross Keys firm that deals primarily in luxury properties. "Let's face it, the Realtors have the buyers and they are going to [direct] them to the right places. If they are going to ignore us, and we're are not going to know that much about it, then you can't direct them that way."

But the question remains: Does Baltimore have enough money players to make the Ritz a success?

"I think that there are," Rodgers said. "I think there is a lot of money here that hasn't been spent. And I think a lot of people are willing to spend it."

Rodgers, whose company holds the $3.95 million listing to the Green Spring Valley estate of former Rite Aid Corp. Chairman Martin L. Grass, said he's shown that home multiple times "and everybody could write a check."

"This town, we'll never know for sure, but I will bet you that there are 5,000 people making $1 million or better a year, and after a while they would like to start spending it," Rodgers said.

"They are like any other town. The old quiet Baltimore money that used to be is no more. People that are making it want to enjoy it. It used to be years ago that people would hide it."


Another factor working in Ritz's favor is that demand for housing around the Inner Harbor in the past three years outstripped supply, sending prices higher.

According Joseph Cronyn, senior associate for Lipman, Frizzell & Mitchell, a real estate consulting firm, many prime waterfront properties - new and resale - are getting $200 a square foot.

"The people who pay those kinds of dollars are not flinching at all at those kinds of numbers," Cronyn said. "Over $200 a square foot was unheard-of territory a few years ago. And now it is a very well-established price niche."

Comparatively, for new condominiums in Ellicott City - on average the most expensive in the surrounding counties - the average square-foot price comes to $131.

But at the Residences, the price per square foot will be between $300 and $400. And on top of that, Ritz officials project that the condominium fee will be based on 55 cents a square foot, meaning that a two-bedroom unit with 2,300 square feet will cost $1,265 a month - about the same as a homeowner who has a $190,000 mortgage at 7 percent.

Uncharted waters


"We are in uncharted waters for Baltimore, both price-wise and amenity-wise," said Marc Witman, an associate broker with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. and a former president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors. "There are people putting money where their mouth is.

"You have a lot of people who are in big houses who are looking to get to the condominium, that can afford to go to the Ritz and are going to be selling houses that are going to sell for far more money than they had ever anticipated.

"So the move up isn't going to be as big of a move up as it used to be. The Baltimore market is coming to the Ritz's prices."

Ritz officials are awaiting final approval of the condominium documents and expect to start turning reservations into contracts by the first week of April.

"Because we are just starting to become public, we expect there will be another wave here," Mackesey said.

But if you're interested, you'd better hurry - Mackesey said Ritz officials are already planning a price increase of $25,000 to $100,000 a unit within the next 30 days.