Developers hope to start building a $230 million project next spring near the campus of Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore that would include luxury apartments, shops and, later, offices or a hotel to cater to the expanding health system's growing number of employees, patients and visitors.
The project's developers expect that the Washington Hill complex would forge a link between the world-renowned institution and surrounding neighborhoods, rejuvenating three vacant blocks where dilapidated public housing was razed three years ago. City leaders and developers believe that the 1.2 million-square-foot project can capitalize on the growth of Hopkins, which is in the midst of a major expansion on the city's east side.
"This is such an important parcel," said Dave Holmes of Fells Point-based Capital Development, which has teamed up with Texas-based JLB Partners for the project's first, mostly residential phase. "Unfortunately, over the '80s and '90s, there was always a kind of boundary - here's Hopkins and here's East Baltimore. We felt that this parcel could be that link, that gateway for the community into Hopkins."
The team is scheduled to unveil its plans today before the city's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel. Some 444 new apartments are proposed along with new shops that could include a bookstore, coffee shops or restaurants. The site is bounded by an area that includes Baltimore, Orleans, Wolfe and Washington streets.
The plans are moving ahead at a time when many of the city's largest proposed real estate projects have stalled amid tightening credit and weakened housing demand. City Councilman James B. Kraft, whose district includes the Washington Hill neighborhood, said he feels confident the team will move forward and can secure the financing to begin the first phase of the project, which will include 444 apartments and commercial space such as a grocery.
"Every time a shovel goes in the ground in the city, it gives someone the confidence to say, 'Things are happening again, let's get moving,' " Kraft said.
The project also recently added partner JLB, which Holmes says has a proven track record of obtaining financing for similar projects in today's market. Holmes' partner at JLB, Gary Plichta, could not be reached yesterday.
Holmes says his project already has waited out a difficult market - he purchased the property five years ago when it was a suburban-style public housing town house complex called Chapel NDP. The developer at first proposed town houses but decided they wouldn't sell in today's weak real estate market. Holmes, however, said he expects Hopkins professionals and graduate students to rent many of the apartments.
Even as the economy has slowed, large-scale redevelopment has continued in East Baltimore, driven in large part by Hopkins-generated growth. The hospital is in the midst of a $1.2 billion redevelopment project on its 80-acre campus to replace aging structures and half the inpatient beds. One major project, two clinical towers under construction on the corner of North Wolfe and Orleans streets, sits just across from the northernmost portion of Capital Development's site.
And East Baltimore Development Inc. is transforming another 88 acres in the neighborhood from what had been vacant or rundown housing into new homes, offices and retail space anchored by the Science + Technology Park at Johns Hopkins.
Both Holmes and John T. "Jack" Shannon Jr., the president and chief executive of EDBI, said they hope the two projects will complement each other.
EDBI has completed its first biotech park building and is planning the second. It also has developed the first 152 units of mixed-income housing. The group expects to start another 200 units during the next year and a half. EDBI is also considering developing a grocery store and a hotel, Shannon said.
"We do not view what would be happening more than a half-mile away as necessarily competitive to our efforts, but I do think it behooves all of us ... that we do coordinate our respective efforts to ensure the future of East Baltimore is a solid one," Shannon said.
JLB will work with Capital on the first phase of development, estimated at $110 million, building the one- and two-bedroom luxury apartments in two buildings.
The first phase
About 30,000 square feet of shops, including a small, upscale grocer, will be built on the ground level of the building at East Fayette and North Wolfe streets. A second phase of development - in which JLB is not involved - is planned for the future on the block bounded by Orleans, East Fayette, North Wolfe and North Washington streets, Holmes said. That could include medical offices, another 340 housing units, retail, a hotel, or some combination of those uses, depending on market demand. Holmes envisions the new offices being leased by either Hopkins researchers or other researchers or pharmaceutical companies. Financing for that phase would not be secured until a construction schedule was set.
To start the second phase, Capital Development needs a change to its planned unit development zoning, first approved by the city in 2004, to increase the total amount of retail from 60,000 square feet to 120,000 square feet. A bill to increase the retail space is now before the City Council.
Neighborhood residents are awaiting the rebirth of the three blocks, said Kinji Scott, executive director of the Citizens for Washington Hill community association. He said the neighborhood residents want more upscale housing and shops within walking distance.
"It's a long walk to the Whole Foods" in Harbor East, Scott said. "For the most part, we have to drive. And most of our restaurants are in Fells Point. New restaurants would be a good thing for the community, and having some markets we can walk to."