Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Rotunda: Redevelopment at Last

 In Baltimore there are several development and redevelopment projects that are awaiting redevelopment. In a City where funds are limited to help developers move forward as well as current economic climate, it's no surprise that come projects remain in the pipeline. After more than a decade of planning and pitfalls, one redevelopment project is finally coming to fruition; The Rotunda.
During the mass exodus to the suburbs, Baltimore tried very hard to bring some of the suburban amenities to neighborhoods that weren't experiencing the same levels of urban decay as those closer to Downtown. It was decided that the Rotunda (then housing an insurance company) would become one of these suburban style Shopping Centers albeit as an enclosed Mall complete with a Grocery Store, Drug Store, Food Court, and a Movie Theater as well as smaller shops and boutiques with Offices above complete with a full parking lot. Parking (or lack thereof) was a huge hurdle luring quality Retailers into the City and also why at the same time they preferred the up & coming suburbs.
The Rotunda helped keep the Hampden/Roland Park area from decaying as badly as inner city neighborhoods did. Much of that had to do with the insulated location on the outskirts that provided a buffer for them as well so much so that Residents in nearby felt it safe to walk to and from the Rotunda which gave an element of a Community Center as well as a Retail and Office Complex. This safety was that was severely lacking during the 1970s and '80s when the Rotunda was in its heyday.
In the 1990s, Hampden began to experience a rebirth. 36th st. nicknamed "The Avenue" became something of a Main St. and tourist trap with new shops popping up in Retail spaces that had long since been vacant. At Christmas time on 34th St. every house on the street began decorating their homes with over the top lighting displays. This became yet another tourist trap and the once desolate streets of Hampden had become a shopping destination for City dwellers and visitors alike and eventually Residential growth followed.
This new life that was pumped into Hampden was not helpful to the Rotunda. In fact, the opening of the Greenspring Tower Shopping Center just a few blocks west of the Rotunda sent it into a downward spiral. Featuring a modern Super Fresh along with open concept Retail, the dingy old Giant and its enclosed layout really began to show its age. In the early 2000s however, the age and condition of the Rotunda could no longer be ignored.
It was around this time that the owners began consulting developers on how to breathe new life into the aging center. Many question were raised during this time such as; Will Giant stay? Will the Cinema stay? Will the original building stay? Will the entire project be Retail? The list goes on. Finally in around 2007, plans surfaced for a redeveloped Rotunda which included a brand new Giant that's the size of a modern Grocery Store, Multi Screen Cinemas and roughly 1000 Apartments and Condos and a Hotel with additional Retail space in an open concept style. 
These plans could not have been released at a more turbulent time. The economy crashed in 2008 making development and redevelopment projects across the Country some to a grinding halt. The Rotunda was no exception. While many redevelopment plans were ditched completely, the owners and developers of the Rotunda kept insisting that when the market stabilized, they would move forward with redevelopment. Giant also agreed to stay in for the long haul and continue to anchor the shopping center in its brand new store once redeveloped. They even agreed they wouldn't close their old dated store in the mean time. 
Well plans change and so does the Retail scene. Just a few blocks down 40th St., the Super Fresh chain went belly up leaving a 40,000 square foot hole in the Greenspring Tower Shopping Center. Although Fresh & Greens attempted to fill that hole, it was not a hit with Residents and left almost as quickly as it came. It was at this time that Giant had gotten sick of waiting for a new larger store. They left the Rotunda high and dry in 2012 in favor of the vacated space in Greenspring Tower.
Owners and developers of the Rotunda continued to insist that redevelopment will still happen. They scrapped the plan for a full sized Grocer in favor of a Boutique Grocer concept like Trader Joes. That worked out well because MOM, The Fresh Market, and Graul's all put in bids to anchor the redeveloped Shopping Center. MOM won the bid and with it several companies signed on to be part of the redeveloped Rotunda inlcuding Floyds 99 Barbershop and Massage Envy. Rite Aid will continue to stay on but the Cinema has since closed. Luckily that was part of the plan. A new Cinema is being built that caters to the growing trend of "Dinner and a Movie." This new Cinema is called "Cinebistro."
The securing of MOM as the Grocer Anchor of the Rotunda made the developers go back to the drawing board. They realized that some other components were a tad too ambitious and grandiose. They scaled back the number of Residences to 379 (down from close to 1,000) and scraped the Hotel. The Apartments (named the Icon) are now a mid rise versus the high rises that would have been required to fit that many Apartments and Condos on that small a site. 
Once given the green light, the demolition of the old Giant began. By that point, Giant's exodus had taken its toll and hardly anything was left in the beleaguered Center. Tenants like Hair Cuttery, Radio Shack, and Casa Mia Pizza had moved to Greenspring Tower just like Giant did. The original building would retain its character but will be in more of an I shape instead of the square that it had been with exterior entrances to shops. A brand new building building will house a parking garage, the Icon Apartments, the Cinebistro, and more Retail. This new building is currently being constructed on the southern end of the site on what was once a surface level parking lot.
It's been a long and winding road to get the Rotunda to where it is today: A mixed use development currently under construction. It was a road filled with bumps, twists and turns and what many thought were false dead ends. Now everyone can breathe a sigh of relief because the road ahead is on the fast track to redevelopment at last.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fells Point: Fighting the Same Battle Twice

Fells Point has had to fight to keep its quaint historic village-like feel. Those who remember that fight will say that it was well worth preserving the Neighborhood. Those who don't remember the fight will take a look at the Neighborhood and say that it was well worth the fight as well. So why is history repeating itself? Well it isn't exactly repeating itself, different forces are looking to destroy Fells Point as we know it but the outcome must be the same; Fells Point must retain its historic character.
Fells Point is one of the first settlements in what would become Baltimore City. This is not surprising due to the fact that it's on the water with numerous wharves and piers to create a hub for manufacturing and importing/exporting. Further inland, quaint row homes began popping up to house said workers. Thus began the tradition now known as Baltimore City. Given that brief history lesson, it's easy to see why preserving housing stock and water views is crucial for Fells Point.
As industrial Fells Point experienced the decline that manufacturing based economies across the Country were faced with in the mid 20th Century, the Neighborhood began to decline. The once bustling wharves and piers had become empty with businesses either going under or relocating overseas with a workforce a fraction of the size than that of their heyday. As the job market dried in Fells Point, Residents began to flee the Community. 
As industry was declining in Fells Point, Baltimore, and America as a whole, a new force to be reckoned with was changing the American Landscape as we know it; Interstates. Fells Point and Baltimore were no different. I-70 was supposed to run through the heart of West Baltimore although it never connected, construction began and 2 miles worth of row homes demolished in the process leaving the Neighborhood in shambles. The original alignment of I-95 was supposed to take out the Otterbein Neighborhood but was since realigned to where it is now. Of course Families in the Otterbein were uprooted anyway and some demolition already occurred before this decision was made but Otterbein rebounded and became one of Baltimore's most sought after Neighborhoods.
Fells Point was also a Community whose future was bleak due to interstate construction. I-83 was supposed to continue past Fayette St. and make a sharp eastward turn Aliceanna St. and eventually Boston St. in Canton before crossing the Harbor and then meeting its terminus at I-95. This would have had a devastating effect on the already fragile Fells Point Community that was plagued with vacant homes and an abandoned waterfront. Fortunately, Community Activists saw the beauty in Fells Point and its waterfront. Luckily, activists were successful in stopping I-83 from destroying Fells Point.
When I-83 was no longer a threat, Fells Point began a rebirth. People seeking City life were drawn into the beauty of the Neighborhood and began buying and rehabbing vacant homes. As Row Homes became more and more scarce, developers looked to the waterfront. Since the waterfront was vacant, it became easy to redevelop it into luxury Apartments, Condos, and Town Homes while Broadway and Thames St. became the Retail Center of the Community.
Now that Fells Point has become one of Baltimore's most sought after addresses, more and more people want to call it home. Needless to say that makes the Real Estate Market very tight. Since the Neighborhood is all but built out, large scale development is restricted to neighboring communities like Inner Harbor East and Harbor Point and Canton to a lesser extent. For the most part, Fells Point is meant to be an historic Community of quaint row homes much to the chagrin of developers. 
But now, much to chagrin of Residents, Fells Point is another fight for its future. This time the enemy is the City Zoning Code. Every so often the City amends its Zoning Code which allows densities and building heights to change which can then influence redevelopment if there's interest in that area. Given the fact that Fells Point is a sought after address, higher density and building heights could theoretically usher large scale redevelopment in Fells Point. 
Although Fells Point is nearing build out, the small row homes and the water view offered by their low height are in grave danger. There are proposals to allow parts of Fells Point to be rezoned to allow much taller. buildings to invade the neighborhood. The water view that's so attractive could be walled off by sky scrapers. In addition, developers could buy out current property owners, knock down historic row homes, and build tall glitzy Apartment Buildings.
Now didn't we go through this already? Fells Point was saved when Community Activists convinced Planners not to build I-83 through it. Although they were successful in eradicating an elevated highway, saving Fells Point didn't mean saving it from itself. By that I mean having the land value get so high that the very houses that Activists are trying to save are endangered due to the fact that developers want to make money off the land by cramming more and more sky scrapers on it.
There's only one real solution to this; Keep the Zoning Code as is. It's just that simple. If nothing changes zoning wise, everything that makes Fells Point special has to stay as is. Tall buildings will not be permitted and the narrow quaint row homes of Fells Point will remain as they are. Fells Point already fought and won this battle when I-83 was nixed. There is no reason they should be fighting the same battle twice.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Canton Crossing: Mixed Use Coming Soon

The first buildings of Canton Crossing were built just before the start of the recession. For years it was the lone office building containing the headquarters for First Mariner Bank with President and Canton Crossing Developer Ed Hale using the top floor as his pent house Apartment. Also in the first stages of development, there were some Neighborhood Retail buildings containing a few Restaurants and a Merrirtt Athletic Club. This phase of Canton Crossing is located at the intersection of Boston St. and Clinton St.
Once this phase was competed, the recession hit. The future of Canton Crossing which was to be Baltimore's First Big Box Shopping Center as well as a slew of Office Buildings and Apartments was in grave danger. The industrial wasteland on which this ambitious project was to be built sat as vacant as a bleak reminder of the fate this once ambitious project was suffering. Indeed, Developer Ed Hale had to sell off the remaining land banks of Canton Crossing as well as other stalled development investments to keep his primary venture; First Mariner Bank afloat. 
The buyer of this land bank was "Corporate Office Properties Trust" better known as "COPT." As I was always a fan of the original concept of Canton Crossing and what it would do not just for Southeast Baltimore but the City as a whole. I made an impassioned plea on this very blog to COPT to "Keep Ed Hale's Canton Crossing Alive." Luckily, this plea was not necessary. Not only did COPT have any intention of making huge changes to the original concept, the land was and is zoned for that exclusive purpose. 
True to their word, COPT began negotiations with potential tenants and announced anchors such as Target and Harris Teeter as well as "Junior Anchors" Old Navy, DSW Shoe Warehouse, Michael's Arts & Crafts, as well as several restaurants and smaller Retail ventures. Sketches of the layout of the Shopping Center as well as the decidedly urban style of the buildings began flooding local newspapers to drum up excitement for the soon to be opened center dubbed "The Shoppes at Canton Crossing" which was slated to open in November of 2013. 
Perhaps it was for best that the construction of Canton Crossing was delayed several years. Had it opened in '08 or '09, that part of the Canton/Brewers Hill Neighborhoods was still quite sparse. However, the Residential Market in particularly the Rental Apartment Market was recession proof. Projects in Brewers Hill just across the street for Canton Crossing such as the Gunther, Domain, and Hanover Brewers Hill created a population boom as well as the need for additional Retail. New town homes in Neighboring Greektown have also added to the demand.
Finally,after years of planning and waiting, the Shoppes at Canton Crossing opened to a huge fanfare. This once forlorn and forgotten part of industrial Canton had experienced a true rebirth as a big box Retail haven flanked by the adjacent First Mariner Tower and Apartments that are both new construction as well as reused industrial buildings. COPT had truly done what Ed Hale had dreamed up and gave Canton and all of Baltimore a successful urban big box Center.
With the success of the newly completed Shoppes at Canton Crossing, many had thought that the entire Canton Crossing Development had been completed. I was beginning to think so as well as my searches for "Canton Crossing Apartments" and "Canton Crossing Mixed Use" came up empty except for articles written years earlier when Ed Hale still owned the land. I had simply thought that COPT had scaled back the project which was not uncommon for developments that stalled the recession. and that those remaining undeveloped parcels would remain so and/or eventually get sold.
Recently I received the exciting news that it's still intended for Canton Crossing to be mixed use. The land that is currently a surface level parking lot on Clinton St. is slated to be at least four office buildings. The swath of undeveloped land next to the target is slated to be a six story 350 unit Apartment Building with underground parking and ground floor Retail. One reason that the additional phases of Canton Crossing were held up was because the design board didn't like the plans presented to them by developers so they were literally sent back to the drawing board especially when it came to the Apartments.  
After close to a decade of waiting and wondering if the finished product of Canton Crossing will be the mixed use haven that was promised to us by Ed Hale, I can now safely that mixed use is coming soon to Canton Crossing.