Amtrak will open a 72-room hotel entirely inside Baltimore's historic and increasingly busy Pennsylvania Station in the next two years, the developer and Amtrak confirmed yesterday.
The developer, Columbia-based James M. Jost & Co. Inc., plans to begin construction on a moderately priced hotel next summer and spend a year converting second-, third- and fourth-floor offices into guest rooms. The rooms will be accessible from an elevator in the train station's lobby.
"The only change commuters will see from the lobby will be hotel signage," said James M. Jost, the company's owner.
A company formed by Jost will own the hotel and lease the space from Amtrak - possibly the first arrangement of its kind for the passenger railroad.
A hotel flag, or brand, has not been determined, nor have room rates, Jost said.
The developer said he was chosen about two years ago by Amtrak for the project, which is expected to cost about $5 million. But he said that Amtrak delayed the development because it was using the office space.
About 100 police, customer service and maintenance workers will have to move to other Amtrak offices in Baltimore.
The developer has built hotels in Maryland and Virginia, including a Residence Inn, Hawthorn Suites, Comfort Inn and Hampton Inn. Jost said he had interest from hotel chains for the Penn Station project, but he declined to identify the interested companies.
He said the proposed Baltimore hotel was appealing because of its location.
"It's an attractive development in that there are demand generators nearby in the University of Baltimore and the existing railroad," Jost said. "The new [high speed] Acela train will produce a great increase in railroad traffic."
'A hotel could work'
Rod Petrik, a managing director at Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. and hotel expert, said a hotel could work inside Penn Station provided it is not too expensive, demand for rooms picks up in the next two years, and the area surrounding the station improves.
He said the planned hotel is not that big but could help the city when conventions require more than Baltimore's 7,400 rooms at once. Often, visitors must go to suburban hotels.
But first, Petrik said, Jost will need to sign on a well-known flag to attract lenders in a tough financing environment.
"Provided he gets financing, I imagine that a hotel could work at the right price range," Petrik said. "It would become more of a success if the area surrounding Penn Station revitalizes. I don't think there are many tourists or business people who would want to go outside and walk around there at night right now."
Physically, the hotel should not pose a problem. A study conducted for Amtrak about three years ago by Einhorn, Yaffee and Prescott, a Washington-based architectural and engineering firm, showed that a moderately priced hotel was feasible without altering the building, which was completed in 1911 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Amtrak spokeswoman Karen Dunn said the passenger railroad has been looking for ways to raise revenue because it is under a congressional mandate to become self-sufficient by 2003.
"This development is a terrific example of how Amtrak can leverage its assets," she said. "Amtrak can provide other things besides rail service."
Amtrak carries some freight and sells merchandise. Real estate development is planned at other train stations.
Dunn said Philadelphia is the only other city in the Northeast corridor, Amtrak's busiest, where a hotel is being considered. However, a hotel there would be adjacent to 30th Street Station. She said she couldn't think of a city with a hotel inside an Amtrak station.
A record 13 million people rode Amtrak in the Northeast corridor - from Washington to Boston - in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Penn Station was the 10th busiest in the nation.
The station has undergone other changes during the years. The lobby was renovated in the 1980s, and an underground 550-space parking garage was added in 1995. An outdoor plaza is nearing completion, and a road and bridge project on Charles Street is slated for completion by the end of next year.
Also in the planning stages are a transportation center that would include a relocated Greyhound/Peter Pan bus station and a 330-car garage on the block north of the train station, linked to it by an enclosed skywalk.
Bill Geschrei of Whitman, Requardt and Associates, a Baltimore architectural and engineering firm that designed the plaza, said construction inside the station would not affect the changes made outside.
M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm, said Amtrak has not sought a city subsidy for the project.
"It sounds like a nifty project, good for the city," said Brodie. "More nifty because they haven't come to us yet."