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Building is on track for residences

Baltimore's historic Railway Express building, once targeted for conversion primarily to offices for an advertising firm, is now expected to become the newest residential development in Baltimore's Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Two years after Baltimore's housing department selected a local group to buy and recycle the former parcel post office at 1501 St. Paul St., developers have modified their renovation strategy to include less commercial space and more residences.

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The change was driven in part by the decision of Carton Donofrio Partners, the ad firm that was going to occupy the building's second level, to back out of the project because it didn't need so much space. It's also a response to conditions in the local real-estate market, where demand for office space has been weak and demand for housing has been strong.

The new plan is consistent with efforts by the city to revitalize the area around Pennsylvania Station by attracting artists and other members of the "creative class."

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After Carton Donofrio backed out, "we had to regroup and see where the market was," said Stanley Keyser, a member of the development team. "We feel it's stronger in residential than in commercial. That's what the market forces are asking for."

The plan always called for building a combination of housing and commercial space, said Martin P. Azola, another developer on the team.

"It's the same game plan," he said. "It's a bit of a different mix -- a little more apartments and a little less office space."

The timing is right for a project such as this, said architect Ed Hord, also part of the development team. "The loft market is very hot. Charles Street is starting to boom, and the whole neighborhood is getting amazingly better. It's taken a while for us to get to this point, but I'm very excited about it."

The two-story, 77,000- square- foot building was constructed in 1929 as a sorting station for packages that arrived in Baltimore by train. Originally connected with the Pennsylvania Railroad, it was later acquired by the city and turned into a maintenance facility and warehouse for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. It has been vacant since last winter.

The city housing department sought proposals for redevelopment in late 2001 and received three. In the spring of 2002, after a lengthy review process, officials selected the current development team. Besides Keyser, Azola and Hord, principals include Kenneth Banks, Ronald Lipscomb and Anthony Ambridge. Hord's firm, Hord Coplan Macht, is the architect. CB Richard Ellis is leasing the commercial space.

The estimated renovation cost has risen from $11 million to about $12 million. The team originally planned to call the project Creative Works but has gone back to calling it the Railway Express Building.

The latest plan calls for construction of 24 to 30 loft-style apartments, ranging in size from 841 to 1,456 square feet, around the perimeter of the second floor. Typical apartments will have bedrooms over the kitchens and bathrooms. Monthly rents will range from about $850 to $1,500.

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"These will be true lofts, with 18-foot ceilings and big windows," Hord said. "The windows in that building are wonderful."

At the core of the second level will be about 11,000 square feet of space for offices, art studios or other nonresidential uses.

The first level will contain 15 or 16 "live-work" apartments -- flexible spaces where, as the name suggests, people can live or work or both. The first floor also will have a main entrance off St. Paul Street, space for merchants ranging from a coffee shop and newsstand to an art gallery, and indoor parking for 14 cars. There will be room to park another 44 cars elsewhere on the property.

A land-disposition agreement between the city and the developers has been drafted and is circulating among the various parties. Azola said the team hopes to settle on the building this summer and begin renovations by the end of the year, starting on the second floor. "We're going to start upstairs and build our way down," he said.

Under that schedule, at least part of the building could open by the end of 2005, and the entire project could be finished by mid-2006. A second phase would provide below-grade parking for another 150 to 175 cars if the team can obtain the necessary approvals to build it.

The apartments are being designed to appeal to young professionals and others who want to rent their homes, rather than buy, and who like loft living. They're also expected to attract people who want to live near the train station and commute to jobs in Washington.

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Certain people prefer to rent for a variety of reasons, Azola said. They may be new to town and want to get acclimated before buying a property; they may not know how long they'll be in town; or they may just like the idea of having someone else taking care of the maintenance.

The developers intend to comply with federal restoration guidelines so the project will qualify for tax credits for historic preservation. To enhance the already-attractive exterior, Azola hopes to uncover some terra-cotta details that have been painted over.

"The structure is so handsome for what it was," he said. "It was the most handsome warehouse in Baltimore."

Although trains run close to the building, Azola said he doesn't think noise will be an issue for prospective residents because the building was constructed so solidly that it absorbs most of the vibrations and train sounds. From inside, he said, the sound of trains passing by will be just "background noise" at that point.


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