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Upscale living, downtown

"Luxury" apartments are now so common that the word means relatively little. But the forces behind Baltimore's newest residential conversion say Saratoga Court deserves the label, even if it sits on downtown's gritty northeast fringe a block from the Jones Falls Expressway.

The 77 loft-style apartments at Saratoga Street and Guilford Avenue will have 9 1/2 -foot ceilings, covered balconies, floor-to-ceiling windows, many amenities and rents that range from $950 to $1,950 a month.

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Along with the Munsey and Standard Oil buildings, Saratoga Court is the third sizable downtown office building given new life recently as housing. It joins a growing number of residential projects that planners hope will make the region's one-time business hub more of a neighborhood populated largely by childless, well-off professionals in their 20s and 30s.

"This really isn't a fad," said Bob Aydukovic, housing director for the Downtown Partnership business advocacy group. "It's becoming very real."

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Since 1999, he said, 1,150 apartment units have been completed from the waterfront north to Centre Street, and from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard east to President Street. The city will soon have about 6,000 downtown residents, not counting those who will live in 1,000 more units under way on Howard Street, at Inner Harbor East and elsewhere.

And beginning this fall, construction is expected to begin on a $32 million, 191-unit apartment building that will rise 23 stories near Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Zenith apartment building will be on a city-owned parking lot at Pratt and Paca streets. Apartments in the upscale building are expected to rent for between $1,200 and $2,500 a month.

Baltimore has a long way to go before it begins to resemble a city such as Philadelphia, where 75,000 people live in Center City, Aydukovic said. But results are encouraging.

The Munsey at 7 N. Calvert St. has leased about 70 percent of its 146 apartments. Many of its tenants are young professionals who moved to Baltimore from outside the area. Rents start at $990 for one-bedroom units and reach $2,300 a month for a large two-bedroom unit with three bathrooms. The Standard at 501 St. Paul St., near the southern edge of Mount Vernon, is 60 percent leased, says its developer, David Hillman.

Saratoga Court, a $10 million project that will be aided by a decade-long city property tax break, will not be ready for occupancy until October. Developer Bob DeSantis, president of Whetstone Development Partners in Gaithersburg, said he has received one application so far.

Saratoga Court's arrival will be a plus, even though it means more competition, said Ted Rouse, the Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse partner who led the Munsey's conversion by using tax credits and other public subsidies. He said it will mean more people in the city after the business day ends, eventually building the customer base to keep restaurants, cafes and shops open into the evening.

"The more of that nighttime, upscale activity, the more it goes toward upgrading the whole area, making it a vibrant day-and-nighttime place," Rouse said. "We're really copying New York's Wall Street district in how it became a 24-hour place, [not just] an office, daytime life only."

DeSantis said he thinks that as much as people will like the proximity to downtown office jobs, they will appreciate being near Hammerjacks and two other nightclubs, Happy Endings and Sonar. The closest grocery is Whole Foods, a short drive away in Inner Harbor East, but there is a farmers' market under the JFX on summer and fall Sundays.

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"A lot of people are new to the city," said leasing consultant Megan Hughes, who was the first to move in a year ago. "It's great to have everybody meet each other along the way. It forms lasting relationships that in the long run help us."

One of those relationships, still too early to call lasting, involves Rachel Blumberg and Ricky Rubin. Blumberg, a 27-year-old nursing home administrator, moved to the Munsey from Boca Raton, Fla., in January after passing on spots in Canton, the Federal Hill area and downtown's west side.

Rubin arrived in May and took an apartment next door to her. A month later the two began dating.

"We are like Melrose Place," Hughes said jokingly.

Not unlike a budding romance, the conversion of buildings such as the Munsey represents a new chapter of sorts. For older downtown structures that have held the same ground for decades but seen their appeal as offices dwindle to nil, they offer a second (or third) chance.

The Saratoga Court building at 222 E. Saratoga St. dates to 1914 and is not as handsome as the Standard or Munsey. While those were built as upscale offices with grand lobbies, the plain-looking Saratoga has always been more functional, serving as a paper warehouse and tannery over the years. In 1970, according to a plaque tacked to the exterior, it became offices for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

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But since 1987, it had sat empty - a tan, concrete hulk that further deadened an already sleepy corner of parking lots and garages. Now, under a plan advanced by Baltimore architect Leo D'Aleo, the outside has been painted gray and an exterior courtyard has been carved onto the north side.

"We cut off every floor," said assistant superintendent Gary Barnhart. "A big part of this project was creating the courtyard."

Some elements have been left intact to give it a sort of neo-industrial look. Ceilings are concrete, and it's easy to see where wooden planks supported the concrete when it was poured. Air ducts have been left exposed. Open dining room and living room areas - some longer than 30 feet - are meant to enhance the loft feel.

Saratoga Court's rents will range from $950 a month for an 875-square-foot one-bedroom unit to $1,950 for a 1,520-square-foot two-bedroom apartment on the ninth floor, the penthouse level with 15-foot ceilings. Parking in the bottom two levels will cost $100 a month.

Overall, rents will average about $1.20 per square foot, DeSantis said, lower than those at some rival developments. Even so, he acknowledged, they will not be cheap.

"But I'll tell you what, if you track what's happening all over town, the kind of rents we're seeing are in line" with what Saratoga Court is charging. He added: "You go to Howard County and try to rent a two-bedroom for much less than that. You'll have a hard time - and you'll have a commute."


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