West side project advances


The developer of the long-delayed St. James Place, a $7.5 million housing and retail redevelopment on Baltimore's west side, will purchase the city-owned property and move forward with the project under agreements approved yesterday by the city's Board of Estimates.

The city spending board sold three buildings in the 400 block of N. Howard St. and two others around the corner on West Franklin Street to the developer, Blair McDaniels LLC, for $250,000. The board also approved a $400,000 loan to help with construction and $600,000 to go toward the demolition of three nonhistoric properties.

The developer also will get a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, which will give the developers a rebate of property taxes on an incremental basis for 15 years.

Blair McDaniels plans to begin in August restoring a five-story building on North Howard Street that was built in 1905 as a furniture store.

The building is to be converted into 25 apartments, with monthly rents ranging from $850 to $1,200, to market to young professionals and university students, and nearly 2,000 square feet of ground-floor shops.

The developers will raze a nonhistoric building to the south for a courtyard and build a parking lot in place of two buildings on West Franklin.

"The west side is really picking up momentum," said Wendy Blair, a partner in Blair McDaniels. "Momentum is only beginning to move up to the upper west side. And then you look at what's happening to the north," where the state government is planning to convert the state office complex into large mixed-use project called State Center.

The city views St. James Place as a critical link in reviving the upper portion of North Howard Street, one of the main arteries through the west-side renewal area. But the northern portion of Howard, dotted with vacant buildings, has lagged behind the area farther south, with projects such as the refurbished Hippodrome Theatre, the Centerpoint retail and residential project and the Atrium apartments in a former Hecht's department store.,

"St. James is a nice project in itself, but it also sends a good message in the northern part of the west side that other things are going to happen," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., which had acquired the properties for the St. James project. "We think some other developers in the area are waiting to see if the St. James would happen, which would rekindle their interest."

The BDC first requested developer proposals in 2000. The economic development agency received five proposals and awarded exclusive negotiating rights for the land to Blair McDaniels, a joint venture between W.L. Blair Development LLC and D.A. McDaniels Inc.

Wendy Blair, who said the project was finally able to get $5 million in financing this year, said earlier market studies had shown the market for apartments hadn't arrived.

"Most projects are market-driven," she said. "You're not going to be able to start a project until your banker believes in the project and believes there is a market to deliver it."


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