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At last, Centerpoint under way

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To anyone still wondering whether its $70 million Centerpoint project is for real, Bank of America will offer new proof today: the shovel.

Ground is to be broken this morning on the much-anticipated shopping and apartment complex, which supporters hope will spur efforts to revive downtown's once-humming west side.

"We're ready to go," said Maria E. Johnson, the bank senior vice president in charge.

Mixing new construction and renovation, Centerpoint will have 394 apartments at rents ranging from $750 to more than $2,000 a month. The project also promises a parking garage and street-level shops and restaurants.

It will occupy nearly the entire block bounded by Howard, Eutaw, Fayette and Baltimore streets, topped by a 17-story apartment tower on one corner.

By infusing the moribund area with new life, city officials say, Centerpoint will be a boon to the Atrium apartments and other recent renovations on Howard Street. They say it will also help to fill the 2,250 seats at the nearby Hippodrome Theater, which is being renovated for Broadway shows.

In a broader sense, planners see Centerpoint as a way to close a gap between the relatively stable Charles Street corridor and the fast-growing University of Maryland campus and its medical system. The goal is to turn what had been a retail hub for much of the 20th century into a neighborhood that is safe and clean.

"Without Centerpoint there isn't a west-side redevelopment," said John Morton III, president of Bank of America Mid-Atlantic Region. "Even the Hippodrome, as important as that is to the fabric of our community, the final pieces of its financing - and really its life - were hinged upon the closing of the commitment of Centerpoint."

Three years ago, the bank promised to invest $100 million in the west side, and Morton said it is nearly there. But while Centerpoint's progress is being hailed, it has been a long time coming. Once envisioned as opening in October, construction was put off several times in recent months.

"Thank God," developer David H. Hillman said of today's groundbreaking. He led the $20 million conversion of the Hecht's department store into the 173-unit Atrium apartments and feels too much like a "pioneer."

"It'll be great to actually see some shovels in the ground, see cranes and equipment moving around," said Sharon Grinnell, chief operating officer and west-side coordinator at Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development arm.

One reason for the pace, bank officials say, is the deal's complexity: The city has spent about $23 million, Grinnell said, to acquire properties on the block and relocate merchants.

Bank of America agreed last fall to pay the city $6 million for the block, though city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt predicted the city would see only $4.9 million because of anticipated environmental cleanup and demolition costs. Given the magnitude of the bank's investment, Mayor Martin O'Malley and other city officials deemed it a good deal.

Completion will take two years, Johnson said. Work will begin on the tower, at Howard and Fayette, but that will be the last piece to open, in mid-2004.

Next, a series of buildings farther south on Howard will be made into apartments, with a video store, mini-mart, dry cleaner and other shops on the first floor. Opening is set for late next year. Shortly afterward, a parking garage facing Baltimore Street should be ready.

The next phase will continue west on Baltimore Street and then north on Eutaw. Old buildings will be fixed up and new ones built, with apartments on the upper floors and restaurants on the ground. That work will be done in mid-2004, Johnson said, about when the tower is scheduled to open.

Not everyone sees Centerpoint as progress. Some previous businesses "suffered quite a bit," said lawyer John C. Murphy, naming as an example People's Liquors, which is now in a less-busy space on West Baltimore Street.

At the same time, Murphy said, O'Malley deserves credit for requiring the city to buy inventory from store owners who did not want to move and chose instead to close.

The bank - which has teamed with the minority-owned Harold A. Dawson Co., an Atlanta developer - is reserving space for two merchants that had been on the block. One is Hippodrome Hatters, which stood for 71 years on Eutaw Street and is temporarily located around the corner.

"It was pretty much a community of merchants, but now it's going to be a bigger and better community," said owner Lou Boulmetis. "We're going to have not only merchants but people living and working there, too, right on top of the retail stores. It's really going to be like a community in miniature."

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