In a major expansion plan, the Johns Hopkins University has signed a letter of intent to buy the sprawling St. Paul Cos. campus that straddles the city-county line in Mount Washington.
Already a major property owner and the city's largest private employer with 35,000 people, Hopkins expects to keep growing.
Assuming the deal is completed, Hopkins plans eventually to use just under half of the space in five major buildings on the 68-acre campus for administrative offices for the school and the hospital, a Hopkins official said yesterday.
Insurer St. Paul will likely keep its roughly 700 workers at the Mount Washington site until the second half of the year and then look for new offices in the region, according to its real estate broker.
Law firm Piper Rudnick LLP, which leases a building on the county portion along with other businesses, will stay at least until 2010, a Hopkins spokesman said.
In all, the campus' existing buildings have room for up to 2,700 workers.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The purchase could be settled within two months.
"Johns Hopkins has added about 1,000 jobs in Maryland in each of the past three years," said William R. Brody, president of the university.
"We expect to keep growing at nearly that pace as academic and clinical programs expand and our scientists win more federal research dollars. We're committed to keeping as many of those new jobs as we can in our home city of Baltimore; this acquisition of a spectacular property will help us do that."
Dennis O'Shea, a spokesman for the university, said Hopkins has no plans to hold classes or to construct another building on the site, but it has not ruled out anything.
The leader of a neighborhood association said she would welcome Hopkins but wanted to talk about plans.
"This is breaking news so most residents don't know about it, but my feeling is that it would be positive and that Hopkins will be an excellent neighbor to Mount Washington," said Jan Franz, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association.
"They have a good track record of relationships to communities surrounding their campuses. I look forward to establishing a relationship."
Franz said she would want to talk to Hopkins about issues such as increased traffic, any new construction and the possibility of students attending classes there, but said, "I would think Hopkins would listen to our concerns and work with us."
Hopkins said it plans to begin moving workers to the campus late this year or early next year. The first employees will come from a computer center and Johns Hopkins Medicine Access Services, both now in East Baltimore.
Hopkins plans to pay for the purchase with its endowment and other investments, which have minimal real estate holdings now, according to O'Shea.
While Hopkins is a nonprofit institution, the sale will not take the entire campus off the Baltimore City and Baltimore County tax rolls.
Properties leased to businesses will pay property tax, O'Shea said. They include the Founders Building that houses Piper Rudnick - the only building on the county part of the campus - and a conference center on the city side.
Hopkins also will pay parking taxes for all employees who park at the Mount Washington site.
According to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, the campus currently has an annual city real estate tax bill of $614,370 and a county bill of $288,746, although it receives a small discount for paying the taxes early.
Including its Homewood and East Baltimore campuses and leased space, Hopkins said, it occupies about 12 million square feet. This year Hopkins announced it would move about 220 employees from its medical campus to leased space in Fells Point and downtown.
It also recently moved administrative offices and more than 300 employees into renovated space at the former Eastern High School on East 33rd Street, which Hopkins bought from the city.
Walter D. Pinkard Jr., president of Colliers Pinkard, St. Paul Cos.' broker, said the Mount Washington campus has about 644,000 square feet of usable space. There has been a lot of interest from buyers since it was put up for sale in September, he said.
Area brokers said the 250,000-square-foot Founders Building was a trophy property because it is fully leased to Piper Rudnick and other businesses.
Several investors submitted bids for it and the surrounding 41.7 acres that make up the campus' county portion, which carried an asking price of $34 million. There was no asking price stated for the city portion.
"It's such a unique property that it was not necessarily going to be driven by the economy," said Pinkard, reflecting the fact that large corporate campuses are rarely available.
"We knew someone could use the opportunity rather than just the buildings, someone for whom a campus opportunity would be important."
Pinkard stressed that the deal is not yet done, but he said Hopkins was a good fit.
The campus originally was the home of Mount St. Agnes College. Baltimore insurer USF&G; Corp. bought the property in 1982 to house an operations center.
But the insurer, caught in a financial squeeze, stunned downtown in 1995 by announcing it would abandon its high-cost Inner Harbor skyscraper and move its shrinking work force to the Mount Washington site.
When USF&G; was sold to St. Paul in 1998, it had 2,800 workers in Baltimore.
With further cuts, St. Paul no longer needs much of the room. Under the agreement with Hopkins, the company has at least a year to move out of the McAuley Hall building, but Pinkard said he expects to find it a new home sooner.
The company has pledged to stay in the Baltimore region, said Mark Hamel, a spokesman for the St. Paul, Minn.-based St. Paul Cos.
"We are very happy that Johns Hopkins has entered into a letter of intent with us," he said. "It's ideally suited to their needs."
In addition to parking garages, the campus has historic and modern buildings that include a conference center, guest rooms and a power plant that can be used in peak times when commercially produced electricity is expensive.
In a statement, Mayor Martin O'Malley expressed relief that space for new Hopkins jobs could be found in the city.
"The city is fortunate to have the Mount Washington corporate campus available to accommodate the continuing growth of one of our region's premier institutions," O'Malley said.
"The spectacular job creation of Johns Hopkins over the past three years has been a bright spot for Baltimore in these challenging economic times."