Multi-use complex envisioned for State Center site downtown

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The state of Maryland is taking preliminary steps to transform its old, plain and sprawling downtown Baltimore office complex into the foundation for a brand new entertainment, retail and residential hub.

In September, Maryland's Department of Transportation will begin looking for developers who can tear down the 25-acre network of state offices and build in its place a new government workplace, but one integrated with places to live, dine and shop.

The plan fits into a sweeping state and city strategy to recharge a bland 110-acre swath of midtown, an area dominated by the office complex and the McCulloh Homes public housing, into a vibrant extension of Mount Vernon's cultural district with as many as 3,200 new homes, 571,000 feet of new retail - including a movie theater and a boutique hotel - and a new 4-acre park.

Called the "Eutaw District," it would be the most extensive redevelopment effort in modern Baltimore City history, with acreage topping even the mammoth Uplands and East Baltimore biotech park projects.

"The state and the city have bought into what this area could become," Sam Minette, the Maryland transportation department's director of the office of real estate, said yesterday.

"It's a huge opportunity," added Baltimore Planning Director Otis Rolley III. "It's a large enough parcel to be really creative."

The center is the largest concentration of state government offices in Maryland, officials say. The three buildings, the first of which opened in 1959, house more than 3,500 workers, including the departments of transportation, general services, and mental health and hygiene.

The property also includes two sizable surface parking lots.

Though state officials insist on keeping the government offices on the site, they don't necessarily need to own the buildings, Minette said - they could sell the property and lease the space back. Additionally, the buildings for state workers don't have to be exclusively office-oriented. A developer, for instance, could build a tower with retail on the ground level and floors of office space above, and top it all off with mixed-income apartments or condominiums.

Part of what gives the site such redevelopment allure, Minette said, is its near-perfect public transportation opportunities. Nestled among the offices are stops for both the Metro subway and light rail. Penn Station is just blocks away.

The idea of tapping that transit potential got state officials off talk of rehabbing the offices and into discussing ways to take better advantage of the property, Minette said. That, in turn, got them thinking even bigger: What about the entire surrounding area?

Along with city planners and representatives from nearby neighborhoods such as Mount Vernon, Bolton Hill and Seton Hill, the state spent months drafting a "vision" for the Eutaw District, a 52-page report detailing what they see for the area's future. They carefully avoid calling it a "plan."

A "plan," Minette, Rolley and others say, is too definitive, a word people could stumble on and get distressed over, failing to realize that nothing's a done-deal and that this project could take as long as 20 years.

Calling it a "strategy" or a "vision," they think, better shows their measured, unhurried approach. Not yet clear are such important details as where state workers would go during construction.

Still, next month officials will seek developers interested in reworking the State Center - and they'll ask those developers to consider the "strategy" as they write their proposals.

The direction is to "look at the strategy and be cognizant" of what the state wants to do there, Minette said. If the goal is to redevelop 110 midtown acres, he said, it makes little sense to consider the State Center's acreage in a vacuum.

"We need to be global," he said. "Not just piecemeal."

With the big picture in mind, as the state moves forward with its share of the land, Baltimore needs to decide whether the city-owned, 31-acre McCulloh Homes site will be part of the effort. The apartments and towers rose in the early 1940s as one of the city's first public housing projects - and one exclusively for African-Americans.

The site's inclusion in the Eutaw District depends on whether the housing project's 800 or so tenants want to participate, Rolley said. And the residents are wary.

Officials' promises that every existing housing unit would be replaced - and that the new development might allow for even more units - have done little to assuage their fears, Rolley said.

"There's a history of people not telling the truth, there's a distrust," he said. "The burden is on the city and state to convince them."

Calls to the president of the McCulloh Homes tenant association were not returned yesterday. But housing advocates like Barbara Samuels of the American Civil Liberties Union say tenants' concerns are justified.

The city, Samuels says, has a history of not replacing public housing units when it razes them. And often, she says, residents displaced from projects can't afford the new "affordable housing" offered to them.

But to realize the full Eutaw District vision, the city and state need the McCulloh Homes property.

Residents in surrounding neighborhoods aren't rushing to embrace the plan, particularly with details so hazy. But they see potential there.

"There's a feeling in the neighborhood that it could be a great thing if done right but a terrible thing if done wrong," said David Rocah, president of Bolton Hill's neighborhood association.

He wants assurances that whatever is done will respect the area's historical architecture and won't cause traffic disasters for the neighborhood. Nonetheless, he and neighbors would love a grocery store and more nearby places to shop.

Maryland Institute College of Art President Fred Lazarus said midtown colleges are desperate for retail. He said he would love to see this plan bring it.

Officials and residents also have high hopes that a vibrant new development would link downtown and Mount Vernon with residential neighborhoods to the west such as Bolton Hill. The State Center, with its imposing towers and vast, empty lots, is a barrier, they say, discouraging nearby neighborhoods from intermingling.

Andrew Frank, vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency, said changing the State Center into a transit-oriented development could catalyze more midtown revitalization by unifying the neighborhoods. "Right now it's a moat," Rocah said of the state property. "It's deserted and empty at night. A lively, welcoming, safe place would be a great step forward."

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