Ritz-y living in demand

Move over, Boardwalk and Park Place.

The swanky Ritz-Carlton condominium project rising at Baltimore's Inner Harbor is pulling in buyers as fast as units are released for sale, and the first two mid-rise buildings are expected to be just about full when they open in the fall.


The developer credits the cachet of the luxury Ritz-Carlton brand and the project's prime waterfront location for the strong demand, even as the housing slump has stalled condo sales in Baltimore and elsewhere.

When the last batch of five were put out for sale in mid-December, including a penthouse with a price tag north of $5 million, all were gone in a day. All three of the $5 million-plus penthouses have been sold.


And despite earlier projections that it would be Washington money moving in, it's mostly Baltimore's well-heeled who are lining up for the $1.5 million-and-up residences.

About 75 percent of the buyers are "notable Baltimoreans," said Jack J. Cayre, a principal with the project's developer, Midtown Equities LLC.

"They want to live near people they're associated with - or would like to be associated with," Cayre said yesterday, as the developer marked the midway point in completing the project, placing the final steel beams on two of the buildings.

"The key that ties everyone together is lifestyle. They're looking for that lifestyle," Cayre said.

Though Cayre won't disclose the number of units sold, the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore estimates that 125 of the 192 units have sold. Cayre said he expects most of the 100 units in the first two buildings to be sold when those buildings are finished later this year.

Buyers have been a mix of local celebrities and county dwellers who want to scale down or have a place for their boats, said Michael Yerman, a broker with Long & Foster Real Estate hired to handle sales for the project.

"The Ritz is like saying Rolls-Royce," Yerman said. "We've had a lot of inquiries from around the country and from the immediate area because it's a Ritz-Carlton."

That name and all it promises meant everything to Ray Ferguson, a retired director of a lab equipment company from Annapolis, and his wife, Jan, a retired owner of an interior plantscape firm. When they didn't find what they were looking for in Annapolis, the Baltimore natives looked at the Ritz, then looked no further. The couple will move into a first-floor, two-bedroom condo at the Ritz with a private lawn.


A lifestyle choice

"From a lifestyle standpoint, I don't think there's anyplace like the Ritz that would offer this kind of lifestyle - pools that I don't have to clean, hot tubs I don't have to clean, a concierge, valet parking, maid service if we need it, restaurants you can get to without getting your umbrella out, parking under our unit and getting into a private elevator," said Ferguson, who will sell a single-family home in Annapolis.

"We travel an awful lot, and when we have to leave our present house, it's a chore and when away, worry about it. This way, it's a lock-and-leave situation," he said.

So far, Midtown Equities' strategy of gauging demand and releasing only a handful of units at a time to a competitive pool of buyers is paying off. None of the released units remain unsold, Cayre said.

Midtown is betting that demand will continue to build to the end, bringing higher prices than if the units were all put up for sale at once, Yerman said

Housing experts credit the fast pace of sales to the relative scarcity of comparable upscale waterfront housing and a small percentage of available condos in an area the size of metro Baltimore.


"If you really look at the numbers, we don't have a big condo market here at all, even with the new projects coming, based on the size of the metro area and the number of new condos," said Robert Aydukovich, vice president of economic development for the Downtown Partnership. "What's available currently is a small percentage in this population."

Market seems strong

Aydukovich said sales of condos in the $200,000 to $500,000 range have been strong in new projects such as 414 Water Street downtown and The Vue in Harbor East, which has sold out.

Aydukovich believes the market for high-end condos will also remain strong in projects such as the Ritz and a comparable project set to begin construction this year, The Four Seasons Resort and Hotel. The latter is to include 104 condos but has been delayed as developers consider including a commercial component along with the hotel and condos.

Aydukovich said the partnership's research shows Baltimore's condo market is not becoming overbuilt.

The Downtown Partnership estimates downtown can absorb an additional 7,400 townhouses, condos and apartments over the next five years.


Still, the slowdown in the housing market has affected Baltimore, said William Rich, a vice president of Delta Associates, which tracks the multifamily and condo housing markets.

In the fourth quarter of 2006, Baltimore and the surrounding metro area had only 74 condo sales, compared to more than 400 in each of the previous three quarters of 2006, he said.

As a result, some developers have had to change course.

Wood Partners, developers of Avalon Village Green, a garden-style apartment complex in Pikesville that had converted to condos, switched back to rentals, he said. "I think there's more than seasonal [fluctuations] going on," Rich said. "It's a larger increase in the pipeline of condos in the market, it's over-saturated" and condos are seen as a riskier investment.

Even so, Baltimore's condo market has not suffered nearly as much as those in cities such as Washington, Miami and Las Vegas, where the condo boom was fueled by speculators before prices began to decline, Rich said.

He said the Ritz has benefited from having little competition, as other developments are still in the planning stages.


"I think the difference is that the Ritz really is just a different animal than your average condo in Baltimore," said Grant Montgomery, a vice president at Delta Associates. "And it's that it's targeted toward a particular niche of the market - and the fact that that niche has not been addressed before."