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Why Companies Don’t Like Downtown Baltimore

How it's done.

There have been rumblings from real estate brokers and other critics that redeveloping State Center would drain downtown of its vibrancy. This assumes downtown has such a thing as “vibrancy” to begin with. The same arguments are made about Harbor East and how it has made downtown look tired and increased vacancy rates. This is like saying Megan Fox makes Betty White look old. Well, Betty White would look 80 even if she was standing next to Mickey Rooney (no disrespect to Ms. White intended).

Take the intersection of Charles and Fayette. This is pretty much the geographical center of downtown and the intersection of major crosstown routes, and it’s dead.  A vacant, half built hotel, a cafe’ with patio space the owner doesn’t want to use, and an empty storefront which has been dark for a year. This is the gateway to Mt. Vernon from the Inner Harbor and it is sort of the canary in the coal mine for the general state of downtown.

So building owners and agencies are trying to lease vacant office space to bring downtown back to life. This strategy is backwards. Decision makers and corporate heads don’t only look at the numbers. They walk around the neighborhood. They get a sense of the place, the foot traffic, the amenities.  They see if the neighborhood is a place they would want to spend 8 hours a day in. The spark comes from street life, but employment adds limited amounts of it. We need more residents downtown to make it a 24-7 neighborhood and to also make it more attractive to companies.

In graduate school, I read about the 10 year tax abatement program Philadelphia started to encourage redevelopment downtown.  It was responsible not only for filling up vacant storefronts, but getting thousands of new and converted residential units off the ground. Instead of a project-based PILOT program like we have in Baltimore, Philadelphia’s program was more equitable in that it was city wide and that any developer could qualify.

“In the beginning, the abatement program was 100 percent responsible for getting things going,” said Paul Levy, president of Center City District, which was formed in 1990 to address the decline of downtown Philadelphia. “Now there is a discussion going on about whether or not it’s still needed.”

According to a report released [in 2005] by the Center City District, from the time that tax abatements were passed, more than 8,000 converted and new units will have been added to Center City, and half of all new residents benefiting from tax abatements came from outside the city.

Those who lived in the city before the newest influx see a big change in the character of the downtown area.”

We need a net gain in downtown employment, but getting more people to live here would be the less obvious but more effective way of getting more people to work here.  Maybe a similar tax abatement strategy could amplify residential development downtown when the market recovers. Many corporations want to be in active, hip neighborhoods, and increasing downtown’s population would have the added benefit of improving its retail market demographics. Not to mention giving more people transportation options and getting cars off the street – especially those who would move here from the suburbs.

The reasons that corporations move to a place are not so dissimilar to the reasons a person chooses one neighborhood over the other. If the office space is there, create a nice place to work and the workers will come.

  • CB

    Take for instance the Fidelity Building at Charles and Lexington. The upper floors of this building should be turned into apartments or condos. It’s been “under renovation” for years, but really has been sitting mostly empty.

    Another good candidate would be 26 S. Calvert, the old USF&G Annex. Right now, the plans are to tear it down for part of CityScape, but that isn’t happening anytime soon. Why let another one of our old downtown buildings meet the wrecking ball when an adaptive reuse could be used, and bring more downtown residents.

  • Evan H

    I grew up in Philadelphia’s suburbs, and I have to say that Center City has developed very nicely and downtown Baltimore could learn a few things from it.

    First, mixed use. A lot of office buildings there were adapted to allow for condos on several floors. Add to that the numerous shops and restaurants in the area, and you have a neighborhood where people can live, work, go out at night, and run their errands without ever having to travel far. I’m no expert on this, but I’d imagine that a block that has homes, offices, and places to go after work would enhance safety considering that there are always eyes on the street.

    Second, open space. Center City has plazas and parks in several locations. Who wouldn’t want to live/work in a space that overlooks trees and perhaps a historic statue?

    Third, and this is a big one, transit. Every commuter train stops at the Market East, Suburban, and 30th Street stations, and you have the subway lines as well as the PATCO line. You’d have to be crazy to own a car in Center City (or crazy rich), and having access to transit could be a deal-breaker for people thinking of living there. If I lived in Center City and wanted to visit my parents in the suburbs, I’d just have to walk a few blocks to a station, and without any transfers I’d be there in a half hour. Alternatively, if I had grown up in Towson or White Marsh or Columbia, and wanted to live in downtown Baltimore I really wouldn’t have a convenient way to visit my family.

    Certainly businesses would be more likely to open up in downtown Baltimore if they had more residents (not to mention convenient transit options from anywhere in the metro area so that people from other neighborhoods can visit). I think it would be a worthy investment for Baltimore to emulate Philadelphia in this manner. Of course, Philadelphia could learn a few things from Baltimore as well. Namely its lack of a decent waterfront. I blame the presence of I-95 and I-76.

  • Mark

    Yea, better city/regional transit would definitely help downtown. CC Philly is more of regional transit hub than downtown Baltimore will probably ever be – mostly because Philly has some dense, historic suburbs while we have places like Columbia. Urban parks and residential conversions are the low hanging fruit, though.

    26 S. Calvert is a great building. I hope B Heritage finds a way to work with the developers to preserve it.

  • Evan H

    Good point. Considering how long Red Line is taking, it would be a long long time (optimistically) before downtown Baltimore would have multiple lines. But developing mixed use buildings is much easier to do and gives businesses a good customer base.

  • Barry Childress

    Re: Charles and Fayette
    Thieves kept stealing the outdoor furniture that was there and the building owner will not let it be bolted down, at least per my conversation with the coffee shop owner.