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$250 million Project with 300 Condos and a 250 room Hotel
 Planned for Baltimore's Inner Harbor
By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore SunMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

July 21, 2006 - One of the last prime, undeveloped parcels at the Inner Harbor has been sold to developers who plan to build a 50-story condominium and hotel skyscraper, joining other high-profile projects slated to add downtown housing and radically alter Baltimore's skyline.

UrbanAmerica LP, a New York-based real estate private equity firm, and Baltimore developer Doracon LLC have acquired the former site of the News American newspaper at 300 E. Pratt St. for $28 million. The block, now a parking lot between South and Commerce streets, had been controlled by Harvey Schulweis, president of New York-based Schulweis Realty Co. The company had floated proposals over the years for offices, a hotel, apartments and condominiums, but none ever materialized.

The $250 million project would include 300 condos, a 250-room, five-star hotel and 40,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, Richmond McCoy, president and chief executive of UrbanAmerica, said yesterday. A high-end hotel should boost the appeal of the condos because of the shared amenities such as a concierge, room service, swimming pools and spa services, the developers said.

McCoy said UrbanAmerica has sought development sites in the Baltimore area for about three years. "This one obviously stood out above all the rest," he said. "With all the success of downtown and the Inner Harbor, we think it's a fabulous location."

The partners, which will own the site and develop it in a joint venture, are negotiating with several high-end hotel investor operators, McCoy said.

Construction could begin next year, he said.

A cooling of the area's housing market has not dampened the partners' enthusiasm or belief that demand for condos downtown remains strong, he said. The condos would likely be priced in a range of $600 per square foot, which would equate to about $720,000 for a 1,200-square-foot apartment.

Some housing experts surveyed by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore have cautioned that high-end condos downtown are at risk of being overbuilt, especially those in the $750,000 to $800,000-plus range.

But McCoy said the developers have been encouraged by the early success of condominium projects already under way, such as the Ritz Carlton Residences, now rising on the waterfront at the foot of Federal Hill, where buyers are spending $1 million and up.

Other projects include a condominium tower under construction at 414 Water St., a 34-story tower planned by The Cordish Co. that would rise atop a Metro stop at Market Place, and two 60-story condo and apartment high-rises in the Guilford Avenue corridor downtown planned by Potomac developer Richard W. Naing. Additionally, Philadelphia-based ARC Wheeler is proposing a 59-story glass condo and hotel skyscraper on Light Street.

"We think there's enough demand in the city and the region to support most of these projects, and we'll continue to monitor the strength of the market," McCoy said.

Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's economic development agency, said the mix of uses being considered suits the East Pratt Street site.

"It is a prime site at the intersection of the Inner Harbor and the central business districts and east of Charles Street, where development is certainly moving," Frank said. "This is at the intersection of three very hot areas."

Developer Harold B. Wheeler, a principal with ARC Wheeler, said having another residential and hotel tower at the Inner Harbor can only boost the downtown market.

"Quality projects like that make Baltimore more of a destination, and people want to live downtown even more," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he hopes to close on the purchase of the Light Street site, a parking lot that once housed a McCormick & Co. spice factory, by mid-September and to have a deal with a boutique hotel operator by then. That project will also feature shops, restaurants and parking.

The 300 E. Pratt St. site has remained vacant since it was cleared in 1990. Schulweis had proposed building an office tower there in 1989, before the office market suffered a downturn. In 1996, Schulweis proposed an 800-room Westin as a city convention headquarters hotel, a project the city ultimately awarded to H&S Properties Inc. for a hotel that became the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront at Harbor East. Schulweis pushed on with plans to build a hotel on the site, before shifting to plans for an apartment tower, then to a mix of apartments and condominiums.

When Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, heard about the sale, "My reaction was, finally something might happen on this site," he said. "It's such an underutilized property."

The partnership is encouraging the new owners to include a significant amount of shopping along with the hotel and condos, Fowler said.

"We believe there will be more and more demand for retail along Pratt Street as more of it starts to fill in," Fowler said. "We'd like to push for more retail to play off the complementary retail at The Gallery," next door on Pratt Street.

But, Fowler added, "given the location of this property, there's little doubt that many different uses could work effectively here."

McCoy said UrbanAmerica usually works with a local development partner and has confidence in Doracon because of the developer's involvement in numerous city development projects. Doracon President Ronald Lipscomb did not return phone calls yesterday.


Copyright (c) 2006, The Baltimore Sun

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