In a move that could remake a key leg of downtown, Baltimore City Community College is considering putting its Inner Harbor campus on the market.
Faced with cramped, aging buildings, a desire to expand and a shortage of money, the school's leaders are investigating whether the answer to those problems lies in selling the valuable Lombard Street site. They've convened a real estate task force and hope to soon hire a consultant to help them realize the property's "fullest commercial potential."
"We're trying to figure out how to get the biggest bang for the buck, quite frankly," said Garland O. Williamson, chairman of BCCC's board of trustees. "We know we need to be creative."
BCCC's tiny Inner Harbor campus is little more than a building and a lawn. But development experts can't say enough about its possible value - sitting right on Lombard Street only a block from the water and steps from some of downtown's top attractions.
"If they weren't there, it would be an interesting piece of real estate," Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie said. "But that's a decision they have to come to themselves."
This is not the first time BCCC has weighed the benefits of its downtown location - an ideal site for the school's work force training mission - against the property's market value.
A decade ago, the General Assembly allowed the school to shop its Lockwood Building site on Pratt Street. The college ended up leasing the prominent property to developers who built Lockwood Place, a shopping center that only now is taking off with tenants, including Best Buy, Filene's Basement and some chain restaurants.
The arrangement brings the college more than $1 million a year in rent - money that helps pay for programs and faculty.
BCCC's top officials, including new President Carolane Williams and Williamson, say that as the school celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, it's time to ask some tough questions - primarily how the school can improve itself.
"If we want to become a world-class institution, we have to have a world-class facility," Williamson said. "We don't have that right now, but we have lots of potential."
With the success of Lockwood Place on their minds, the officials suspect a similar deal could help the school get closer to its goal. Specifically, such an arrangement could finance the construction of new class buildings either downtown or elsewhere in Baltimore.
"We want to think about a project that can produce the same kind of benefit [as Lockwood Place] and maybe even more," Williamson said.
The college, its administrators say, is bursting at the seams. Its main campus in Liberty Heights is built out. And the downtown branch is a problem-laden building that sits smack in the middle of one of the city's most desirable areas.
The harbor campus' main feature is the Bard Building, a forgettable dark-brick structure built in 1977 that's afflicted by mold, water damage, an unpredictable elevator system and, as Williamson puts it, "not the most efficient design to provide educational services."
Beyond the $10 million in needed repairs, the Bard is also, many point out, something less than attractive.
In 2005 while touring Baltimore, urban design critic James Howard Kunstler had nothing good to say about either the Bard Building or the Holocaust Memorial next door - a site the college also owns and leases to the Baltimore Jewish Council.
The memorial he deemed "ugly and brutal." And that was complimentary compared to his view of the Bard: A "truly revolting" building, a "monstrosity."
"This is the most baleful, despotic building I've ever seen in my life," Kunstler concluded.
Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler politely says that Bard's design has "significant drawbacks, particularly from a street-level perspective." Though he doesn't relish the idea of the college's leaving the city center, like other downtown boosters, Fowler thinks the city can make better use of the site.
Though the college has agreed to a long-term lease for the grassy memorial site, Williamson said that if a development opportunity came along for it, he'd want to sit down with the Jewish Council and try to work out a deal.
"We want to ensure that BCCC stays downtown because it brings a lot of students as well as energy," Fowler said. "Whether BCCC needs to be on its current site or not is another question."
The college's leaders say they've made no decision about staying downtown.
"Our mission is very flexible," says Katrina R. Riddick, a trustee who's overseeing the real estate task force.
Williamson adds: "It's not a matter of being over here or over there - we can be anywhere in the city."
Though the college values being downtown, with its public transportation options for commuter students and variety of hands-on job-training opportunities, its leaders like the idea of moving to a struggling part of town to help revitalize it. The college has approached city officials to ask about vacant, city-owned sites, particularly schools.
Douglas McCoach, the city's new planning director, said the college is in a position to choose from any number of "very exciting opportunities." He thinks the Lombard Street site could be right for anything from an entertainment venue - to blend in with the Power Plant Live venues next door - to something residential, joining the condominiums rising just behind it on Water Street.
Maybe, he said, the school could even stay and share the site with something new.
"It's not surprising that this is looking like a development potential," McCoach said. "They're sitting on a very valuable piece of property."
Development consultant Al Barry, who said he's not competing for the job to advise the college, suggests that the college think about a project that would include a number of uses - a popular building trend that city officials favor.
To make the most money, Barry said, the school would have to leave the site.
Baltimore developer David Cordish, who developed the Power Plant and bid unsuccessfully for BCCC's Lockwood site, has an obvious interest in the school's real estate plans.
"Clearly the Baltimore City Community College would benefit from a different location, and the city would benefit from a more intense development of the community college building," he said. "The building is functionally and physically obsolete and will take a fortune to rehabilitate. ... The money would be better spent on a new facility."
David H. Hillman, who has developed a number of downtown apartment buildings, said he thinks the college should find someone to develop a high-rise on its site and then negotiate to use a number of floors in the new building for the college.
As for the rest of the building, he thinks an office or a hotel would blend well with the area.
"My bet would be a hotel. You might struggle for a little while, but with the office development on that end of town, and being so close to Power Plant Live, I think a moderate-priced hotel would be the right thing," he said. "And the college could work out some deal for conference facilities and things like that."
BCCC officials say they are going to spend the next few months studying possibilities and making some serious decisions. Do they move? If so, where? And if they do, what exactly would wring the most value from the downtown site?
"We haven't made up our mind about anything," Williamson said. "We haven't taken anything off the table, and we haven't put anything on the table."