Downtown Baltimore is poised for a substantial housing and job growth spurt over the next five years that could solidify its emergence as an urban hub where people live, work and shop, according to a forward-looking series of reports by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
In the next six years, downtown can absorb more than 7,400 new housing units and will pick up more than 17,000 jobs, thanks to hospital expansions, biopark development and the federal military-base restructuring, the partnership's Outlook 2012 estimates.
Still, the reports raise questions about whether that degree of residential growth will actually happen - and how many new downtown residents would stay long term - because of concerns ranging from crime to pollution to high parking costs.
The partnership commissioned the studies last year, with support from the Goldseker Foundation, in part to back up with numbers the changes that many have seen in downtown. As recently as five years ago, few people lived in the central business district, but now new residents can be seen jogging, walking dogs and even grocery shopping at the area's first new supermarket.
The center-city population has doubled to 10,000 in five years. And more than 37,000 people live within a one-mile radius of Pratt and Light streets, ranking downtown's core eighth in the nation for population density and number of households earning $75,000 a year or more, according to the report.
"It gives specific, updated information to what people suspected was going on but couldn't demonstrate," said Timothy D. Armbruster, president and chief executive of the Goldseker Foundation. "The ... population of center city may very well at least double in the next five years. The potential for this to turn into a real community, and - if the population does grow - a really substantial civic and political influence, is something people should understand."
New downtown residents are predominantly young, white and highly educated, with household incomes of $50,000 or more, the report found. Nearly three of every four come from out of state.
"The new residents are fairly different than what the Census shows for Baltimore City, but the downtown area is much different from other areas of Baltimore City," said Matthew Kachura, a research analyst for the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore, which surveyed 470 new downtown residents.
But keeping those new residents downtown could be a challenge, the report suggests. New residents surveyed listed crime and drugs, dirt and pollution, lack of parking or expensive parking as negatives in living downtown. A third of those surveyed expect to move within five years, and more than a third were unsure of their future plans. Just over a quarter said they intended to stay for five years or more.
"What this is saying is there are significant drivers from the major institutions expanding, so there will be a lot more jobs downtown and the potential then for continued strong downtown housing market," said John McIlwain, a senior resident fellow for housing at the Washington-based Urban Land Institute.
But McIlwain said he wouldn't anticipate a boom, "and 7,400 units would really be a boom."
"Baltimore's downtown is an attractive place to live," he said, "but there are still challenges ... and the strength will depend clearly on job growth but being able to manage crime and to link some of the neighborhoods that are growing together so they become one cohesive fabric."
The outlook included separate studies on housing demand, demographics, retail and job growth. The partnership commissioned Zimmerman/Volk Associates to update a 2001 report that looked at housing demand in downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.
At that time, researchers projected that the downtown market could absorb about 5,000 new residential units over five years. Since then, about 3,000 new units have been completed, with an additional 1,000 under construction, and rents and sales prices have gone up.
The update shows demand for about 7,430 new homes through 2011, including 2,980 apartment rentals, 2,200 for-sale condo units and 2,250 townhouses.
"Baltimore is definitely going to continue to have a rebirth," said David Hillman, chief executive of Southern Management Corp., a developer, owner and manager of about 2,000 apartments in nine city buildings. "The national trends are going that way. People are tired of commuting two hours. People are going to want to be where the jobs and services are. And as more people move into the city, retail services will follow, and they employ people, too, and they want to live close to work."
Southern Management, one of the first developers to complete a residential conversion on downtown's west side with the Atrium apartments, is converting the BGE building on West Lexington Street into 183 apartments. After several years working to attract a supermarket to Charles Plaza, the company was able to bring in an upscale, urban version of Super Fresh, which opened recently.
The jobs report, by Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group, found that even economic blips such as the national downturn in the real estate market would likely be overcome by growth in hospitals, bioparks and base restructuring that is bringing new jobs to Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Meade. Those expansions will generate 17,584 jobs, $987.5 million in associated income and $2.2 billion in business revenue, according to Sage research.
Baltimore is becoming a global health center, the Sage report showed, with Johns Hopkins Hospital's $1.2 billion renovation and expansion of its medical campus, Kennedy Krieger Institute's investment of $50 million over the next few years and the University of Maryland Medical Center's new construction of a $329 million ambulatory care center. Mercy Medical Center, meanwhile, plans a $258 million clinical tower. Both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore are developing biotechnology research parks, which will account for more than $1 billion in investment on downtown's east and west sides in the next decade.
Nan Rohrer, the partnership's retail development director, said retailers who dismissed downtown Baltimore a few years ago are giving the city a second look.
"Retailers are waking up to the fact that there is a large and rapidly growing market in the city," she said.