Downtown enjoys construction boom

The Baltimore Sun

Developers finished nearly $550 million in downtown Baltimore construction projects in the first four months of the year - more than twice the value of developments completed in all of 2007.

That's according to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which detailed a continuing boom in activity in its newest "State of Downtown" report being released today. About $2.7 billion in construction is under way now, despite the housing slump, credit crunch and economic slowdown, the group said.

"Downtown Baltimore is in a good position to weather the national storm," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, which runs programs and acts as an advocate for the area.

The group defines downtown as a mile in all directions from the intersection of Pratt and Light streets. That encompasses part of Mount Vernon to the north, Federal Hill to the south, fast-growing Harbor East and the west side.

Economic woes - including difficulty getting financing - have not left the area unscathed.

Many of the projects completed this year were started before the housing boom turned to slump. Last month, The Sun found that more than $1 billion in planned Baltimore developments had stalled, most of it projects slated for downtown.

Not all proposals that made sense in the housing-boom days still do, said Daraius Irani, director of applied economics at Towson University's RESI consulting arm. But it could be worse than plans sitting on the shelf.

"The last thing you'd want is half-finished condominiums or office developments that have been peppering other places, such as Miami," said Irani, who was not involved in the State of Downtown report. "While we're not entirely immune from the real estate downturn, we have some positives."

Developers completed almost $250 million in construction, renovations and conversions last year in downtown Baltimore. That's down from $394 million in 2006, the Downtown Partnership said. But the value of developments finished in January through April tops each of those years.

A single development accounted for a big piece of the work: the $232 million mixed-use project that fills a square block in Harbor East, developed by H&S; Properties Development Corp. with Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse as construction manager. The project has a Homewood Suites hotel, a Hilton Garden Inn, 175 condos and businesses ranging from a seven-screen theater to a Starbucks.

Homes, apartments, retail, office space, institutional buildings and other hotels rounded out the rest of the $550 million total.

Many of the projects under construction now are either mixed use - such as the Harbor East site where the new Legg Mason headquarters is under way and a Four Seasons hotel is slated - or for institutions such as hospitals and universities.

Consider the University of Maryland, Baltimore, an anchor on downtown's west side.

It's to open a new administration building in about four months, will finish renovating its old School of Social Work building next year and expects to complete a campus center around January 2010. Construction will begin in earnest this summer on a pharmacy school annex, and the university is hoping that next year it can start designing a new health sciences research facility.

"I'd say in the last 10 years, ... our campus has built over a billion dollars of new construction," said Angela Fowler-Young, director of capital budget and planning at the university.

The rest of downtown has been catching up.

"We used to be very isolated over here on what they call the west side of downtown," Fowler-Young said. Now, the new Zenith apartment building is nearby, the Hilton convention center hotel is under construction, and it strikes her that the university and downtown "have just merged."

Fowler, head of the Downtown Partnership, said a notable change in development last year was the re-emergence of retail. Super Fresh opened downtown, as did Filene's Basement - almost two decades after the last department store in Baltimore closed.

Fowler attributed the change in part to continued population growth. The group counted 38,250 downtown residents last year, up 1,000 from the year before. That population density within a mile of the downtown core ranks Baltimore seventh among the biggest metro areas, ahead of such regions as Boston, San Diego and Denver, Fowler said.

His group, which surveyed the 1,000 largest employers downtown, found job growth of 5 percent last year. However, the Downtown Partnership said it can't compare total job growth because last year was the first that it used the one-mile radius for measuring employment.

The group thinks businesses are fairly optimistic about downtown's economic prospects this year, as the country overall sheds jobs.

Of the 581 large employers asked in January and February about their expectations for job growth this year, most said they expect no change. Not quite 1 in 5 believe they might add.

"Zero thought they'd see declines," Fowler said.

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