Builder backs off plan for tower

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Construction magnate Willard Hackerman has backed away from plans to invest in the redevelopment of Baltimore's historic Bromo Seltzer tower, just days after he pulled out of a disputed land acquisition deal in St. Mary's County.

Hackerman, chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., had been negotiating to purchase federal preservation tax credits as the last piece of a financing package that would enable Baltimore to proceed with a $1.5 million renovation of the vacant tower at 15 S. Eutaw St., transforming it to artists' studios.

After land preservationists and Democratic legislative leaders criticized a state plan to sell Hackerman 836 acres in St. Mary's County that were purchased with public funds intended to protect open space, Hackerman withdrew his offer in a letter released by state officials Nov. 8.

Shortly after last month's election, he also notified a city representative that he was not prepared to proceed with the plan to buy preservation tax credits associated with the Bromo Seltzer tower project.

The decision represents a setback for revitalization efforts on the west side of downtown Baltimore, where restoration of the 1911 Bromo Seltzer tower was intended to activate a prominent city landmark.

The slender building, modeled after a 13th-century watch tower in Florence, Italy, and highly visible on the city skyline, has been vacant since the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture moved out in March 2002.

Built as part of the factory that made Bromo Seltzer, a headache remedy, and later donated to the city, the 15-story tower has proven difficult to renovate because each floor contains only 900 square feet of space -- less than many one-bedroom apartments. The city housing department sought proposals from developers several years ago but received none that it deemed acceptable.

The city's latest plan calls for the tower to contain studios for 15 to 20 artists on the upper floors, plus a commercial space at street level. In last month's election, city voters approved a bond issue that will provide $500,000 in partial funding, with additional money coming from the Baltimore Development Corp., the Maryland Heritage Authority, the Neighborhood Partnership Program and the sale of tax credits, among other sources.

Construction had been scheduled to begin in the spring and be complete by late next year, if the financial details could be made final this fall. Hackerman's change of heart means the city cannot move ahead until it finds a new buyer for the federal tax credits or makes other funding arrangements.

Hackerman could not be reached for comment. In a letter to the editor published last week in The Sun, he wrote that the dispute over the St. Mary's transaction "has been a very painful experience arising out of what was an act designed to help the environment."

Hackerman noted that he has been responsible for "tens of millions of dollars in contributions" in recent years to more than 600 mostly local charitable organizations. He said he has been "unfairly punished by the onslaught of negative publicity fueled by those who callously tried to harm my reputation for political and other purposes."

The Bromo Seltzer tower, also known as the Baltimore Arts Tower, was home to the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture for nearly three decades, starting in 1974. City employees moved out after the agency was merged with the old Office of Promotion to create the Office of Promotion and the Arts, on Redwood Street. Bill Gilmore, head of the combined agency, has been working since then to find an appropriate use for the tower and has long been intrigued by the idea of converting it to artists' studios.

No secret

Hackerman's potential involvement in the Bromo Seltzer tower renovation was no secret to city leaders and others who follow west-side development closely. In recent weeks, word circulated that Hackerman, who shuns publicity, was having second thoughts about staying involved in the Bromo tower project in light of the attention surrounding the St. Mary's County transaction. His company is still working with the Baltimore Development Corp. on plans to build a 750-room hotel next to Baltimore's Convention Center, according to BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie.

Gilmore, who has overseen planning for the arts tower conversion with project director Jody Albright, said he is hopeful that Hackerman will reconsider his decision not to buy the Bromo tower tax credits. But Gilmore said his agency also has begun looking for another investor to replace Hackerman, if necessary, so the project can move ahead.

Gilmore said Hackerman contacted Albright sometime after the Nov. 2 election to tell her he did not want to proceed with the project. "Mr. Hackerman said, 'We need to step back at the present time, and you should look for a new investor if you need to,'" Gilmore said.

Gilmore said he has not spoken to Hackerman directly about the Bromo Seltzer tower because he did not want to put additional pressure on him. He said he remains optimistic that the transaction with Hackerman can be put back together because Hackerman was right for the project and "Jody was not told that it was dead in the water."

The sale of preservation tax credits has always been a key part of the financial plan for the arts tower renovation.

Quickly came to mind

When planners initially wanted to identify an investor, Gilmore said, Hackerman was "one of the first thoughts" because he has been a longtime supporter of the city in general and the arts agency in particular.

"He bends over backwards to loan his trailers and get his guys to build and install things" so the city can stage events such as ArtScape and the Baltimore Book Festival, Gilmore said.

Under the financing plan for the Bromo Seltzer tower, Hackerman was expected to contribute $300,000 to the project. That would make him eligible to receive $300,000 worth of tax credits, provided the work complies with federal standards.

Hackerman would have become the financial partner in a limited liability company that was being created to acquire the Bromo Seltzer tower from the city. He would have been joined in the company by a quasi-public entity, most likely the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, which would serve as the project's managing partner.

Hackerman's company was also to be the general contractor for the construction work. Hackerman's presence on the ownership team, Gilmore said, gave the city confidence that the work would be completed in a timely manner and the price would not rise.

Gilmore said he is hopeful the restoration work can move ahead, one way or another.

"The Bromo Seltzer tower is not going away," he said. "Somehow, it's going to be saved. It's not going to be on anybody's demolition list. Whether it's this idea or another idea, it's going to happen."

About the Bromo Seltzer Tower

* Constructed in 1911

* Modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

* Designed by Joseph Evans Sperry and built by Captain Isaac Emerson, the inventor of Bromo Seltzer. The tower once adjoined Emerson's Bromo-Seltzer factory, but the factory is no longer standing.

* Originally topped with a 51-foot revolving replica of the blue Bromo Seltzer bottle, which was illuminated by 596 lights and could be seen from 20 miles away.

* Instead of numbers on the four clock faces, letters spell out Bromo Seltzer.

* In 1936, the bottle was removed in due to structural concerns.

* In 1973, the Arts Tower Committee reopened the Tower Building as an arts and crafts center; an adjoining part of the building is used as a firehouse.

* This tower is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sources: Sun reporting, the National Park Service, Sun file photo

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