New de­vel­op­ers pro­vide first look at Old Town Mall plans

Project for apart­ments, of­fices, re­tail, com­mu­nity space could start in 2017

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Natalie Sher­man nsh­er­man@balt­

Af­ter years of plan­ning, the de­vel­op­ers of a site near Old Town Mall un­veiled a broader plan Thurs­day that they say would tap into a mar­ket cre­ated by nearby Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal and help weave the neighborhood back into the fab­ric of the city.

The pro­posal, which would cre­ate more than 2.2 mil­lion square feet of new of­fices, mixed-in­come apart­ments, re­tail and com­mu­nity space, is a re­sponse to the city’s ef­fort to re­de­velop a 16-acre site that once held the Som­er­set Homes pub­lic hous­ing and a pub­lic mar­ket.

But the vi­sion pre­sented to the city’s Ur­ban De­sign & Ar­chi­tec­ture Re­view Panel on Thurs­day would ex­tend east be­yond those bound­aries, ul­ti­mately in­volv­ing the ex­ten­sion of two city streets and re­lo­ca­tion of a city health clinic, a school and a recre­ation cen­ter. An even later third phase could in­volve re­de­vel­op­ment of the pri­vately owned For­rest Street Apart­ments.

“Thep­ur­pose­ofthis is that Som­er­set and Old Town have re­ally be­come iso­lated,” said Tim Pula of Beatty De­vel­op­ment, one of four firms work­ing on the project. “The idea is to start re­con­nect­ing not just Old Town and Som­er­set but things that are to the east, in­clud­ing Hop­kins and we can start pulling these things and knit­ting these things back to­gether like they had been to a de­gree in the early 1900s.”

The city selected Beatty De­vel­op­ment, Henson De­vel­op­ment Co., Com­mer­cial Group and Philadelphia-based Mis­sion First Hous­ing Group last year to re­de­velop pub­lic hold­ings in an area roughly bounded by Cen­tral Av­enue and Mon­u­ment, Or­leans and Ensor streets. This area in and around the pedes­trian Old Town Mall has re­mained dis­tressed de­spite decades of re­vi­tal­iza­tion ef­forts.

Dis­cus­sions with city agen­cies and the city hous­ing au­thor­ity about the ad­di­tional prop­er­ties are con­tin­u­ing. A spokes­woman for the Bal­ti­more De­vel­op­ment Corp. de­clined to com­ment on the plans, say­ing she did not want to spec­u­late be­fore the par­ties reached a deal for the parcels, which in­clude the Na­tional Adademy Foun­da­tion School and the Chick Webb Recre­ation Cen­ter.

“You’re con­sol­i­dat­ing prop­er­ties and sug­gest­ing ex­pan­sions of the do­main with­out any com­mit­ment from any­one else to do so,” said Gary Bow­den, a mem­ber of the de­sign re­view panel.

Pula said the first phase would oc­cur on the land in­cluded in the city’s orig­i­nal re­quest for pro­pos­als. It would in­clude about 920,000 square feet of de­vel­op­ment, with a gro­cery store and at least two build­ings for which the team plans to ap­ply for low-in­come hous­ing tax cred­its, he said.

Those build­ings would be con­structed first, with the share of mar­ket-rate hous­ing in each build­ing grow­ing as the de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ues. Pula said the team hopes to get started in 2017.

Pula said it could take 10 years or longer for the plan to be re­al­ized, de­pend­ing on the real es­tate mar­ket. But he said the firm is con­fi­dent in the mar­ket for af­ford­able hous­ing in the city and the need for re­tail to serve the ex­ist­ing res­i­dents, as well as the pos­si­bil­i­ties cre­ated by the prox­im­ity to Hop­kins and the growth push­ing north from Fells Point.

“Ob­vi­ously it’s a tricky area, it’s sat va­cant for a very long time, but that’s why we think there’s pos­si­bil­ity,” he said.

The mas­ter plan, by Ayers Saint Gross, is pre­lim­i­nary and likely to change. Mem­bers of the de­sign panel sug­gested re­or­ga­niz­ing the place­ment of a small park and other build­ings, ques­tioned the amount of re­tail planned and said they were con­cerned the street plan would be dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate.

They also said the project needs to pay more at­ten­tion to its re­la­tion­ship to the his­toric Old Town Mall prop­er­ties, many of them pri­vately owned.

“This is the piece that’s go­ing to be there,” Plan­ning Di­rec­tor Thomas J. Sto­sur said. “If that re­mains just kind of an un­rec­og­nized, un­friendly place, it’s not go­ing to suit you very well.”

Pula de­clined to say defini­tively whether the de­vel­op­ers in­tended to seek tax in­cre­ment fi­nanc­ing or other pub­lic sup­port for the streets, util­i­ties and other pub­lic spa­ces in­volved in the project.

“We are try­ing to get our hands around what the in­fra­struc­ture need is and what the costs are and how to fund it,” he said.

Ar­chi­tect Klaus Philipsen, who at­tended the UDARP meeting, said the pro­posal needs more work, in­clud­ing con­sid­er­a­tion of how the zone will re­late to prop­er­ties to its west.

“The plan re­ally ur­gently needs an ex­cit­ing, rec­og­niz­able space that iden­ti­fies it and makes it a sig­na­ture,” he said.

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