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Downtown Baltimore: land of the lost tenant

Facing an office vacancy rate of 23 percent, City Hall and downtown promoters are laying the groundwork for fresh public investment.

Above: 2 Hopkins Plaza: 42 percent vacant and expecting to lose chief tenant, PNC Financial Services, when lease expires.

Baltimore learned something of an open secret last week – that some of those fine high-rises making up the city’s skyline enclose an awful lot of empty space.

In a one-two punch, the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force and the Downtown Partnership published reports warning that Baltimore’s commercial core is hurting badly.

Overall, the downtown – measured as one mile in each direction from Pratt and Light streets – contains 5 million square feet of vacant office space, or 19 percent of the total, the mayor’s report said. In the central downtown north of Lombard Street and south of Fayette, the vacancy rate jumps to 23 percent.

While not as bad as America’s perennial whipping boy, Detroit, whose office vacancies stand at 27 percent, Baltimore’s surplus square footage compares poorly with Washington, D.C., (9.2 percent vacancy), New York City (10.7 percent) and Philadelphia (15 percent).

Viewed from the ground, the loss of tenants translates into many haunted buildings.

Take 2 Hopkins Plaza. Hailed as a symbol of rejuvenated Baltimore when it opened in 1969, the 24-story tower is now 42 percent vacant, according to the mayor’s report. Worse, PNC Financial Services, the chief tenant, is planning to leave the building when its lease runs out. With it will go about 2,000 employees.

 The landmark Art Deco building at 10 Light St. is 35 percent vacant. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

The landmark Art Deco building at 10 Light St. is 35 percent vacant. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

With its distinctive mansard roof, 10 Light Street has been one of the city’s premier skyscrapers for years. The 34-story Art Deco pile is now 35 percent vacant. Bank of America is paying rent on the vacant space under a long-term lease, but that will soon end, leaving 240,000 square feet without tenants.

Heading east toward City Hall, more ghostlike buildings abound.

One of the biggest spaces, 225 North Calvert St., is also one of the least utilized. The boxlike brick structure, boasting 379,000 square feet of space, is 87 percent vacant. Maryland National Bank originally owned the building for its credit card and other back-office operations. After Bank of America acquired MNB’s successor, the operations were closed. Only a few stray tenants occupy the gargantuan building.

Down Calvert St., the mayor’s task force identified two other troubled properties. The old Provident Bank Building, at Lexington and Calvert, is 65 percent vacant, its major tenant being an M&T Bank branch office. The Equitable Building, at Fayette and Calvert, is 35 percent empty.

A Faltering Downtown

Overall, 23 downtown buildings or properties are underutilized and need immediate attention, according to Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit group funded by the city and prominent business interests.

The group is calling for more vacant office space to be converted to apartments. It is asking the city to condemn and acquire certain vacant properties when owners let them fall into disrepair. And it wants City Hall to create a Tax Increment Finance, or TIF, district in the most troubled part of downtown – the area south of Fayette and north of Lombard between Paca and South streets – to pay for public improvements. The mayor’s task force fell in line with very similar recommendations.

Downtown Partnership paints a bleak picture of an area it otherwise likes to promote as “a great place for businesses, employees, residents and visitors.” The report it issued last week notes:

This ex-bank building at 225 N. Calvert is 87 percent empty. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

This ex-bank building at 225 N. Calvert is 87 percent empty. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

“In City Center and the Westside of downtown, some property owners are sitting on space that is leased but unoccupied. This may be fine for their bottom line but contributes to a lack of street level activity and the sense that downtown is faltering.

“Other key projects have stalled or are making slow progress, including several hotel conversions and the Superblock. And downtown is pockmarked by lots where buildings have come down to make way for new development, only to have the project mothballed.”

So what’s needed?

The report says, “Some of the biggest development opportunities in downtown – a new arena, Convention Center expansion and Lexington Market improvements – need new vision and a plan for moving forward. Many smaller city-owned properties sit empty. Even when these properties have been identified for development, there lacks a sense of urgency, particularly on downtown’s Westside.”

Of course, this requires money – lots of it.

Déjà vu

Funneling public funds into downtown is hardly a new idea. It dates back to the 1950s when City Hall and downtown business groups declared the central city ugly and dysfunctional and jointly inaugurated the Charles Center urban renewal project.

In the 1960s, former mayors Theodore McKeldin and Tommy D’Alesandro reconstituted the same coalition to redevelop the Inner Harbor.

Succeeding mayors, most notably William Donald Schaefer, made sure that state and federal offices were built in the Inner Harbor and surrounding blocks, which has made central Baltimore akin to Washington in its dependence on government employment. (Overall, 8.5 million square feet of greater downtown’s office space is owned or leased by government – 51 percent by the State of Maryland, 30 percent by the feds and 19 percent by the city.)

Then came Harbor East, rising from the ashes of abandoned factories and crumbling wharfs with the mighty assist of city tax credits.

Competition from new office space inevitably leads to reduced use and abandonment of older property. For one thing, today’s office tenants demand state-of-the-art telecommunications, open floor plans, abundant natural light and, the latest trend: low-carbon-footprint building systems.

It’s costly and sometimes impractical to convert older buildings to these standards, especially in a period when the economy is weak and demand low. What the two reports “discovered” this week was that the process of office abandonment has worked its way through the old commercial district to Charles Center, the pride of 1960s Baltimore. Thus, the flurry of coordinated reports and closely aligned recommendations.

The life span of city renewal can be maddeningly short. Yet again, we’re told that downtown Baltimore needs a financial lifeline, and once more, City Hall and business promoters are gearing up to secure a fresh round of public cash and tax breaks.

In front of the marble facade of a Baltimore Street tower. (Photo by Mark Reutter

In front of the marble facade of a Baltimore Street tower. (Photo by Mark Reutter)

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