Banks to beds: A vision for downtown

The 2011 strategic plan for downtown Baltimore released last week by the Downtown Partnership is chock full of ideas. A few of them leave us scratching our heads, but most of the plan is solid and worthy of support.

The central concept of the plan is that more old office buildings should be converted into apartments. This builds on a strength of downtown Baltimore: its residential density. The area within a 1-mile radius of Pratt and Light streets now sports the eighth-highest downtown density in the nation. The population of downtown dwellers grew by 11.6 percent in the past five years. Demand for downtown apartments is strong.

What is needed are more rental units, and to get there the plan suggests that incentives, such as payments in lieu of taxes and tax credits, should be offered to developers to convert downtown office buildings into residences.

Baltimore is familiar with such makeovers. Prior instances of converting offices to dwellings, such as The Standard on St. Paul Street near Centre Street and the Munsey at Calvert and Fayette streets, changed almost the entire buildings. But the study wisely suggests that the next transformations should target former bank buildings, and should aim for a mix of uses.

For instance, the Bank America building at Light and East Baltimore streets has 37 floors, some of them unoccupied. A good strategy, the plan says, would be to put retail shops on the street level, then a mix of offices and residents on the upper floors. The views would be outstanding. Other towers the plan eyes for mixed-use treatment are the PNC Bank Building at 2 Hopkins Plaza and the former Provident Bank at 114 E. Lexington Street. Perhaps this movement could be dubbed "banks to beds."

Skeptics might ask: "Who would want to live there?" The answer is, a lot of people. Downtowns are luring residents across the country, according to Thomas Murphy, the former mayor of Pittsburgh and a consultant to the Baltimore plan. In remarks accompanying the plan Mr. Murphy notes that even as we become more connected technologically, the places that shout vitality, like Millennium Park in Chicago and Baltimore's Inner Harbor, are where people want to be.

Many of Baltimore's new downtown renters are young. Older downtown dwellers tend to buy condominiums, a market that despite the noteworthy purchases by author Tom Clancy, who bought six (yes, six) Inner Harbor penthouse condos, has not been as robust as rentals.

A goal of the strategic plan is to connect the parts of the center city — the west side, the ballparks, Inner Harbor, and Harbor East — in a way that encourages people to move easily among them. It is a work in progress. There are soft spots in downtown, and the plan calls for a combination of approaches — carrot and stick, if you will — to firm them up.

The study notes that the area bounded by Fayette, South, Lombard and Howard streets is showing its age. Many buildings are in needed of repair or are vacant, and a lack of street-level activity makes the area seem dead. To liven the landscape, the plan recommends creating a TIF (tax increment finance) district that would pay for public improvements and make the area more attractive to developers. In addition to this "carrot," the plan also recommends that the city prod landlords of vacant properties and set time limits for developers to move ahead with renovations on properties awarded them by the city. The "stick" here is mostly cajoling. The plan does raise the possibility of the city condemning one property, at 1 Light St., if no real plan of action emerges by Oct. 1, but in most instances it advocates that city officials meet with property owners to discuss their plans for the site and encourage them to move quickly.

This makes sense, but the city, as the plan notes, has not been a model landlord either. The plan scolds the city for owning several under-utilized buildings downtown and for being slow to take action on the Superblock and Lexington Market developments. In some ways, the city would be saying to slow-moving landlords, "Do as we say, not as we do."

Another seeming contradiction in the plan is that it says that downtown property owners should not be subjected to new fees and regulations, yet it also calls for aggressive landmarking of older buildings. When a building is designated as a historic landmark it becomes subjected to a bevy of regulations that control its development. We think moderation in all things, even historic designation, is a wise course.

A few other recommendations give us pause. The strategic plan says not to subsidize building any more downtown hotels — occupancy is down — yet it renews a call for constructing a new downtown convention center. The proposal floated not long ago for that new center also called for building a new hotel, the relocated Sheraton. Since the convention center project appears to be in the distant future, wise heads will have a few years to work out this apparent contradiction.

As for retail, the plan is optimistic that the influx of new downtown residents will spur the arrival of new street-level stores and holds out the possibility of the happy days when the shops of Harborplace and The Gallery will provide goods for denizens of downtown rather than just items for tourists.

The authors of the downtown plan did not dodge the issue of crime, stating that vacancies, panhandling and rowdy crowds associated with nightclubs feed fears about public safety. They recommended that no new nightclubs be located close to hotels or residences. That is smart. Periodic crime waves, such as the recent string of assaults and robberies that occurred in downtown and nearby neighborhoods do not help the image of downtown. But as the plan noted, statistics show that downtown is actually one of the safest areas in the city; crime dropped 53 percent there in the last nine years .

Finally, to attract and keep new residents, the plans says downtown must improve its curb appeal to weave together its parks, plazas and streetscapes, and to bring people outside. Downtown has some appealing open spaces, but they are not well connected and easily walkable.

Over all, the message is that downtown Baltimore is a significant asset — an important economic resource containing 17 percent of Baltimore businesses and 27 percent of all jobs. It is also a place people want to be. If, as Mr. Murphy has observed, the nation is falling in love with its cities again, downtown Baltimore — with its mix of residents, offices and retail venues — should have plenty of suitors. But to remain attractive, it needs to keep itself in good shape. For the most part, the regimen set out in the strategic plan is a good way to get there.

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