Design panel OKs a taller Olmsted

The Baltimore Sun

Plans to replace a luxury condo project planned for the city's Charles Village neighborhood with a taller building containing smaller rental units, double the retail space and offices won approval from the city's design panel yesterday despite objections from neighboring Johns Hopkins University to the added height.

The Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel signed off on developer Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse's request to build a 13-story building, an addition of 24 feet that still requires City Council approval. The developer shifted plans in May after determining that it would be unable to sell luxury condominiums priced as high as $700,000.

A spokesman for Hopkins said a taller building would be out of character for the neighborhood, known for its mostly modest rowhouses and small businesses, many of them catering to university students.

Plans presented yesterday show the project in the 3200 block of St. Paul St. with 202 market-rate and affordable apartments. The project envisions 32,000 square feet of retail space on the first two levels; two levels of offices totaling 79,000 square feet; a five-story garage that would be wrapped by apartments; and four stories of apartments.

The number of parking spaces is still being worked out between the developer and the city's Parking Authority, which will manage what will be a city-owned garage that will serve the project and the neighborhood.

In its original version, the $83 million Olmsted was a 12-floor building with 107 spacious condominiums, with 15,000 square feet of stores on the ground level and a parking garage wrapped and hidden by the condos.

"The market has changed dramatically," Tim Pula, a senior development director for Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse, told the panel.

Pula said the original plans had to be shelved "because the condo market has completely collapsed and we do not see that ... coming back any time soon."

Hopkins representatives told the panel that the higher building would detract from its new $60 million Charles Commons just north of and across East 33rd Street from the Olmsted site. Charles Commons, two towers connected by a bridge, houses 600 students and is anchored by a street-level Barnes & Noble bookstore, with the St. Paul tower rising 10 stories and the Charles Street tower rising 12 stories.

"What that building [Olmsted] will do to Charles Commons and the Jefferson [apartment building on St. Paul Street] and the scale of the neighborhood is not seen as an asset," Salem Reiner, Hopkins' director of community relations at the Homewood campus, told panel members.

When asked later to elaborate, Reiner referred questions to Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea, who declined further comment.

"The statement we made today stands for itself, and we have nothing to add at this point," he said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents the Charles Village area, said yesterday that Hopkins, which approved of the original plan, raised objections during recent community meetings run by the North Charles Village PUD Design Review Committee, a community-based group that reviews designs for area projects.

"There's no question that the height is an issue with Hopkins," Clarke said. "They don't want to be overshadowed. The same PUD committee oversaw the development of the Charles Commons. Everyone has been together doing this for a long time."

In models shown yesterday, the building would step down from the highest point on the north side to lower heights toward the south side on 32nd Street.

The chair of the PUD (planned unit development) committee, Sandy Sparks, told design panel that community members are mostly supportive of the revisions to the Olmsted.

"We are pleased with the new retail component," Sparks said. "We also see a need for Class A office space. All in all, the project delivers what's needed and is seen as reasonable for that corner."

She said the additional 24 feet was viewed as acceptable, "but more than that would not be acceptable.,"

Most of all, community member want to see a building as attractive as the Charles Commons project, she said.

"We have to go for something that works economically so they don't have to strip off the nice finishes," Sparks said.

The Olmsted was planned as the last piece in Struever's "College Town" project, a revitalization of several blocks that has included Hopkins' Charles Commons, and Village Lofts, 68 condominiums with ground-floor shops, across St. Paul Street.

Struever had already razed rowhouses that used to occupy the 3200 block before scrapping the luxury project this year as the housing market slumped. Struever unveiled the revised plans in late May. Since then, Struever has asked the City Council to amend the zoning to allow for a building up to 340 feet, instead of the 316-foot height permitted under current zoning.

Pula said yesterday that the project is on track to start construction as early as next September.

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