Rebuilt office tower to fill gap in Towson

Construction crews are busy filling a 12-story gap that has stood empty in the center of Towson for nearly 10 years.

Workers have been transforming the former Investment Building into the Towson City Center, a $27 million project of offices and retail space near the downtown traffic circle that is expected to be completed by June.

It's a new life for a structure that some once believed to be a "sick building," abandoned in early 2002 amid health complaints by state and county employees who worked there. Their claims were never proved in court.

"Like any sore thumb that stands out, you want to nurse it back to health," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said last week during a hard-hat tour of the construction site. He called Towson City Center a "signature building for downtown Towson," a project he hoped would bring new attention to the county seat, to developments that have recently been completed there and others in the works.

At the moment, the late-1960s structure — once the target of a lawsuit by employees who blamed it for an array of health symptoms — is nothing but a steel frame. Workers sprayed the girders recently with a grayish fire-retarding material, and will soon add the blue-tinted glass skin in hopes of closing the building to the elements before winter, said Arsh S. Mirmiran, director of development for the owner, Caves Valley Partners of Baltimore County.

The firm bought the building in 2008 and started work last winter, stripping the tower to the skeleton. Everything went but the elevator and stair shafts, the concrete floors and the frame.

The building's nearly 155,000 square feet of commercial space is mostly in offices on floors above the plaza level, which sits a few steps up from the sidewalk on York Road.

While no contracts have been signed yet, Mirmiran expects two-thirds of the building to be leased by the fall. He estimates that the building could accommodate about 500 employees. The property contains about 300 parking spaces above and below ground.

The top three floors are spoken for: They are to be the corporate headquarters of the Mile One Automotive group, a company of more than 60 dealerships whose chief executive officer, Steven B. Fader, is chairman and partner of Caves Valley Partners. Caves Valley also includes developers Anthony W. Deering and Arthur H. Adler.

Mirmiran said Caves Valley is negotiating with a "seasoned" local restaurateur to open in the plaza level a "farm to kitchen" operation that would work closely with local growers. The owners hope to lease a small retail space on the sidewalk level to a coffee shop or lunch place.

The plaza space will be reconfigured to be more inviting to pedestrians, Mirmiran said, in keeping with a broader county strategy to encourage foot traffic downtown. As the name Towson City Center suggests, the building reconstruction is part of an effort to turn Towson into an urban space where more people live, work, shop and go to restaurants and entertainment spots.

About 1,200 new apartments and condominiums have been built within view of the top floors of Towson City Center in the past few years. To the southeast along East Joppa Road there's the site of Towson Circle III, a planned combination of multiscreen movie theater, offices, restaurants and stores. Directly south lies Towson Commons, where empty store space is being renovated in hopes of attracting new tenants to spaces along York Road and parts of Pennsylvania and Chesapeake avenues.

Towson City Center will be added to 3.8 million square feet of office space now standing in downtown Towson, an area between Towsontown Boulevard, Fairmount Avenue, Bosley Avenue and the Baltimore Beltway. The occupancy rate for office space is 89 percent, county spokeswoman Fronda Cohen said.

Robert E. Latshaw Jr., president of Latshaw Real Estate Advisors in Towson, figures the actual occupancy rate is a point or two lower than that, but he said the Towson City Center will be a "real boost" to the central business district. He points out that it's been at least 10 years since a new office building went up in the area.

"You're talking about a new, exciting building," said Latshaw, who has worked in commercial real estate in the area since 1975. "That newness is going to generate some interest from people in downtown [Baltimore City] who may want to go into a new building."

To bring Towson City Center into the mix, the county and the state offered Caves Valley Partners $7.5 million in loans — $2 million from the state and the rest from the county.

Towson City Center's owners are reaching for a high rating from the U.S. Green Building Council for environmentally friendly construction. Their plans, aimed at earning a gold or silver rating — second or third on a scale of four — on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] scale, include elevators that generate power, plumbing fixtures that conserve water, and paint, adhesives and floor coverings that emit low levels of volatile organic compounds and improve air quality.

Employees in the old Investment Building for years blamed their workplace for an array of symptoms including headaches, rashes and breathing problems. Early in 2002, all employees — including county and state workers — moved to the Drumcastle Center on York Road, in Anneslie.

Months before they moved, a group of 30 employees and former employees filed a suit seeking $18.3 million in damages against the then-owners of the building, the management companies and several contractors.

The suit was dismissed in Baltimore County Circuit Court in 2006 after a judge ruled that the plaintiffs did not fulfill several requirements of the discovery process, including producing experts who could verify the link between their symptoms and the building, said T. Sky Woodward, a Baltimore lawyer who represented the defendants in the case.

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