West side's stories rising, and with them renewal hopes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ronald M. Kreitner often gazes out his office window high over Baltimore. It's part of his job as executive director of WestSide Renaissance, a business group that hopes its name one day describes the reality of downtown's west side.

Kreitner sees the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center taking shape daily on Eutaw Street. Farther west, he sees cranes helping build a dental school building and student housing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

But what holds him rapt is the 17-story apartment tower rising at Howard and Fayette streets, where a discount liquor store long stood on a haggard corner. When it opens next summer, the tower will have 221 apartments, anchoring an $80 million transformation of an entire block into shops, restaurants and rental residences.

To mark the building's "topping out," after a thousand or so truckloads of concrete have been poured in place, the developers - Bank of America and the Harold A. Dawson Co. of Atlanta - will hold a rooftop celebration tomorrow. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will attend, reflecting the state's investment of more than $4 million.

The entire west side is a long way from regaining the vitality it had as the city's shopping hub before 1960s-era suburbanization spelled its doom. But the progress at Centerpoint is only the most visible sign of the type of change city and business leaders want to see continue.

In other projects:

The $70 million Hippodrome is 80 percent complete, said project manager Robert Boras. The 2,274-seat theater and two former bank buildings are being grandly renovated as the city's showcase for touring Broadway shows. An airy lobby building with huge windows has been built, as has a seven-story stage.

The cost of the public-private project has edged up, with construction likely to total between $45 million and $50 million, instead of the $41 million planned, Boras said. Bank of America will help close the gap by providing more money through federal tax credits meant to encourage investment in depressed areas.

Work will go "right to the wire," Boras said, ending in time for the theater's debut Feb. 10 featuring the hit musical The Producers.

The University of Maryland's new $124 million dental school building is supposed to open in summer 2005. At 10 stories and 360,000 square feet, the brick and limestone building will have a glass facade and two atriums. The old dental school, just to the west, will be torn down after the new one is done.

Fayette Residences, new housing for university students north of Fayette between Greene and Paca streets, is well under way. A 17-story tower will provide most of the 300 or so apartments; the rest will be in older structures that are being rehabilitated. Students should move in a year from now. It will include parking and shops facing Greene.

After a long delay, the Abell Building at Eutaw and Baltimore streets is in the early stages of an overhaul into apartments, Kreitner said. Interior demolition has begun.

The Zenith, farther south at Pratt and Paca streets, is scheduled to break ground in the fall. The 23-story building across from Oriole Park at Camden Yards will sit where a parking lot is now and have 191 upscale apartments.

The quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp. will ask developers this fall for ideas on how to redevelop the block between Howard, Liberty, Fayette and Lexington streets. The Greyhound bus station will be razed for a parking garage. Merchants on the block will receive help relocating.

Coming together

"It's beginning to come together in terms of critical mass," Kreitner said one day last week, scanning the view below his office tower. "You can really see the idea of bringing the university to downtown and downtown to the university."

Nowhere is that more apparent than atop the Centerpoint tower, 200 feet above the street, with construction workers scurrying about and a giant crane swiveling overhead. The university and downtown are about two blocks away.

The tower, which will cost $24 million to build, will be clad in brick, and masons are laying 500,000 bricks by hand. The one-and two-bedroom apartments, many with balconies, will rent for $800 to $1,600 a month. A two-level, 2,500-square-foot penthouse with a deck, panoramic exterior walkway and private elevator will go for $5,000 to $6,000 a month.

All told, the Centerpoint project will have 392 apartments, many of them in restored 19th-century buildings. Just south of the tower on Howard Street, for example, is a six-story building with wood beams dated 1865 and stamped "Fells Point," suggesting where they were made. It will have lofts with exposed brick walls and ceiling beams, 18-foot ceilings and 13-foot-tall windows.

Retail will dominate the street-level space. Bank of America Senior Vice President Maria Miller said "final negotiations" are under way with a convenience store and coffeehouse. Also, a bank will go in the base of the tower. She hopes to line up a video store and dry cleaner on the Howard Street side.

On Eutaw Street opposite the Hippodrome, the plan is for cafes and eateries, including one "white linen" restaurant with a courtyard for al fresco dining.

In the middle of it all will be a seven-story parking garage, largely concealed from view on the streets by Centerpoint's buildings.

Miller acknowledged that the construction schedule has "slipped a little." For example, a mix of renovated and new buildings on parts of Baltimore and Eutaw streets will not be ready until September or October of next year, months later than initially expected.

But she said the obvious progress has made her job easier as she has tried to line up retailers. She now gets calls from prospects rather than having to place them.

Construction snags

The Centerpoint project's cost, initially pegged at $56 million, has risen in recent years to an estimated $80 million. One problem arose last year when the developers fired a subcontractor, apparently after workers removed too much material from facades of buildings that were later restored. And the price tag rose by several million dollars when the cost to remove lead paint and asbestos came in higher than expected.

Kreitner considers Centerpoint's approach a model for the rest of the west side, albeit on a smaller scale: "The character of it is something we think represents the real potential of the west side in mixed-use development with the retention of historic buildings."

Whatever its potential, large swaths of the west side remain bogged down by a reality that includes empty buildings, run-down facades and what west-side planners contend are too many stores catering to low-income shoppers.

Part of it is by design, Kreitner said. The southern portion was always meant to be the first phase. But developers of some projects, notably two planned residential conversions farther north on a bleak stretch of Howard Street, have been held up by a lack of money.

"They don't have all the funding in place to move forward," Kreitner said.

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