Agora's new building
One of Agora’s two new buildings

A long-dormant building on Charles Street will come back to life starting today, after a new owner renovated it and moved employees in over the weekend.

Agora Inc., a Baltimore based network of publishing, information services and real estate companies, bought the five-story office building at 1125 N. Charles Street this month from Chase Brexton Health Services, which continues to occupy three other structures on the block.

A sale price has not been disclosed, but Agora’s total investment for acquisition and renovation has been put at more than $11 million. Combined with the $25 million that Chase Brexton spent to buy and improve its headquarters at 1111 N. Charles Street, that one block received more than $35 million worth of investment in the past five years.

Agora’s expansion will add hundreds of employees to the immediate area to patronize shops, restaurants and other services.

According to Jean Hankey, vice president of management and development, the company bought and renovated the 1125 building because it needed space to house its growing staff. It’s the 12th building that Agora now owns in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere area, which has become a virtual campus for its workforce, and it’s by far the largest.

The first employees moved into floors 3 to 5. They came from other Agora locations in Baltimore, 1217 St. Paul Street and 1117-1119 St. Paul Street.

“We are crammed into our current buildings and also leasing offices in Mount Vernon,” Hankey said in an email message before the move. “We will be moving everyone around and spreading out now that we have the additional space in our buildings. We continue to grow and have almost 900 employees in Mount Vernon.”

Agora’s newest building was constructed by the Monumental Life Insurance Company in 1967 and 1968 as part of its Charles Street headquarters and contains 104,000 square feet of office space. It has been vacant since Monumental Life, now Transamerica, moved downtown in 2011 to what is now the Transamerica Tower at 100 Light Street.

Transamerica sold its Mount Vernon properties to Chase Brexton, which moved into the company’s 1926, 1938 and 1957 buildings but mothballed the 1968 building for future use.

Chase Brexton arranged to sell the 1968 building to Agora more than a year ago. It is the second building on Charles Street that Agora has acquired in the past two years, along with a six-level parking garage just south of the Belvedere condominiums.

It is also the second building that Agora bought from Chase Brexton. In 2012, Agora purchased Chase Brexton’s previous headquarters at 1001 Cathedral Street, home of City Café.

The Charles Street building is a departure from some of Agora’s other holdings, which include some of the most architecturally significant buildings in Mount Vernon. The list includes the former Marburg mansion at 14 E. Mount Vernon Place, the former Winans mansion by Stanford White at 1217 St. Paul Street, the former Christian Science Building at 702 Cathedral Street and the former Episcopal Diocese of Maryland headquarters at 105 W. Monument Street.

Agora sought tax credits for historic preservation to renovate the 1125 building but was turned down after city officials said it was not considered a contributing structure to the Mount Vernon-Belvedere historic district and was therefore ineligible for preservation tax credits.

The company nevertheless has treated the renovation as something of a restoration project, preserving the exterior and upgrading the interior for office use. Hankey and company founder William Bonner are ardent preservationists. Jim Suttner of Rohrer Studio was the architect.

One visible change on the outside is the installation of new glass doors and windows at the 1125 entrance, which has been reopened. Suttner and Rohrer Studio also have upgraded the Charles Street façade of the Belvedere garage and are still working on the interior.

The sale of 1125 was a complex and drawn-out real estate transaction between Agora and Chase Brexton. To facilitate a transfer in ownership, the building had to be separated from the rest of the Monumental Life property through the creation of a condominium regime that enabled Agora to take title to the office space it wanted to purchase. Once the condominium regime was created, the sale could proceed.

The sale was delayed for a time by a fire in the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, which contains the land records for city properties. Access to the land records was needed to create the condominium documents.

Set back 36 feet from both Charles Street and Biddle Street, Agora’s office building sits on a podium that conceals a 100-space parking garage. Agora and Chase Brexton share the parking area.

Agora’s new garage space
Agora’s new garage space

The 1125 building cost $2.5 million when it was constructed in 1967 and 1968. It was one of the first buildings to rise after former Mayor Theodore McKeldin announced plans to revitalize the Charles Street corridor, a vision that still guides Charles Street redevelopment.

Fisher and Taylor were the original architects. Seven smaller buildings were torn down to make way for it. At the time, the building was touted as the first “all-electric” office facility of its size in the Baltimore area, using heat generated by lights in the ceiling and other lighting to keep the building warm.

“The building will incorporate the finest facilities available for lighting, heating, air conditioning and air filtering,” the architects said at the time.

Founded in 1978 by Bonner, Agora and its affiliates publish books and newsletters and organize seminars, with the goal of reaching niche markets in fields such as finance, health and travel.

Agora’s first local real estate project was the renovation of an East Baltimore rowhouse under a city sponsored shop-steading program. Besides Baltimore, it has locations in London, Paris, Bonn, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires and reaches more than 1 million subscribers.

Though not as old as many of the properties on Charles Street, the 1125 building appears to have been well maintained and gives Agora much-needed expansion space.

Working under a right of entry granted by Chase Brexton, Agora began by renovating levels 3 to 5. Now that the first employees have moved in, Hankey said, Agora will focus on renovating the rest of the office floors, the plaza, garage and basement.

Agora may be able to expand even more at its new location. According to news reports when plans were unveiled in 1966, the 1125 building was designed to be able to support an addition of up to nine stories. That would make it one of the tallest buildings in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere area historic district.

The parcel at E. Pratt Street
The parcel at E. Pratt Street

Pratt Street parcel draws three bids

Three teams have submitted proposals to develop a city-owned parcel at the northwest corner of Pratt and Light Streets, near the base of the Transamerica Tower at 100 Light Street.

The Baltimore Development Corporation issued a request for proposals after receiving an unsolicited bid for the property from the owner of the Transamerica Tower and a partner.

The parcel, called 10 East Pratt Street, is one of 12 that have been identified for possible development under a long-range plan for revitalizing Pratt Street between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and President Street.

The plan calls for relatively low rise buildings containing retail space to be constructed along Pratt Street, adjacent to or attached to taller buildings that frame the corridor now. Architect Adam Gross has referred to the additions as “saddlebags.”

Two of the earliest examples were the bump-out in the 400 block of E. Pratt Street, containing a Shake Shack and other retailers, and the Kona Grill restaurant attached to the PNC Building at 1 E. Pratt Street. Another has been proposed for land containing the France-Merrick fountain at Pratt and Charles streets.

In its request for proposals, the BDC said buildings should be at least 20 feet tall, or two stories, and no more than 50 feet tall, or about five stories. At a recent BDC meeting, board members were told that the Pratt Street parcel measures six-tenths of an acre and has an appraised value of $1.5 million.

COPT’s rendering, Courtesy BDC
COPT’s rendering, Courtesy BDC

The three proposals are:

  • 10 East Pratt Street, proposed by Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) and Metropolitan Partnership. This is the group that submitted the unsolicited proposal. COPT owns the adjacent Transamerica Tower. Metropolitan owns 10 Light Street. The proposal called for a two-story, 23,000-square-foot development with 14,650 square feet of retail space at the ground floor level and an 8,940-square-foot “rooftop” restaurant with a 1,700-square-foot rooftop terrace and a 3,960-square-foot rooftop plaza. Work would begin in the first quarter of 2017 and be completed by the fourth quarter of 2017. The developers offered to pay $400,000 for the city land or an amount equal to its appraised value plus an additional $25,000.
  • Schafer Square (that’s how it was spelled in the proposal), by MFI Realty. This group proposed a one-story, 20,000-square-foot building containing an 8,000-square-foot “high end retailer,” an 8,000-square-foot steak house, a café and a financial institution. Construction would begin in June of 2018 and be finished by October 2019. The developer offered to pay the city $1.5 million for the land.
  • Pratt Street Retail, proposed by MLR Partners, with Peter Fillat as the architect. MLR proposed a two-story, 17,500 square foot development with an 8,400-square-foot anchor tenant and 11,811 square feet of additional ground level retail space. The anchor tenant would have space on two levels “to position them as the feature retail occupant of the development.” Construction would start in December 2017 and be complete by June 2019. The developer offered to pay the city $500,000 for the land.

The BDC’s Project and Oversight Committee reviewed the proposals on Nov. 9. It recommended that the mayor’s office accept the one submitted by COPT and Metropolitan and sell the land for the fair market value figure of $1.5 million plus $25,000. The full BDC board met in closed session on Nov. 17 to consider that recommendation. BDC representatives did not disclose afterwards what action they took.

Usually, if the board members don’t reject the proposals outright and instead vote to discuss the proposals in closed session, that means they have decided to recommend that the mayor’s office select one developer to receive an exclusive negotiating privilege, and it is typically the developer recommended by the project and oversight committee.

Gompers building to be stabilized

The old Samuel Gompers Senior High School at North Avenue and Broadway, now vacant and in poor condition, will be fixed up to make it more attractive to potential developers.

BDC voted last week to approve a plan to spend up to $750,000 to renovate the building, which is missing most of its window panes and roof.

A BDC executive said the repairs would be comparable to action taken by the agency to stabilize the former Read’s Drug Store building at Howard and Lexington streets, a historic building that has since been awarded to Spotlighters Theatre. The BDC spent at least $500,000 to put a new roof on Read’s and make other repairs.

“If we can stabilize Gompers, put a new roof on it, that makes it easier to get a developer,” said BDC Executive Vice President Kim Clark.

Ayers Saint Gross and others to receive Business Recognition Awards

The architecture firm of Ayers Saint Gross is one of 11 companies and organizations selected to receive the 2016 Mayor’s Business Recognition Awards during a Dec. 5 luncheon ceremony that starts at 11:30 a.m. the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel at 700 Aliceanna Street in Harbor East.

The annual event is presented by the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Baltimore Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office. It honors businesses for their corporate leadership, commitment to the community and dedication to improving the quality of life in Baltimore.

Other recipients include: the Orioles; BB&T Corp.; Feats Inc. and Fund for Educational Excellence; Radisson Hotel Baltimore Downtown-Inner Harbor; Roland Park Place; University of Maryland, Baltimore; WBAL Radio/98 Rock; Wright, Constable and Skeen; and Write Notepads & Co.

62-unit apartment building proposed for Federal Hill

A 62-unit apartment building has been proposed as an addition to the 74-unit Harbor Hill Apartments in Federal Hill by its owner, Community Realty Company. Harbor Hill is the former Southern High School property on Warren Avenue.

According to the SouthBmore, CRC presented plans at a recent Federal Hill Neighborhood Association meeting that call for the new building to be constructed in place of a parking lot on the property. Peter Fillat would be the architect and the building would rise four or five stories, with two levels of underground parking, according to SouthBmore.

Community celebration today to honor Joyce Scott

Maryland Institute College of Art is hosting a community celebration today (Nov. 21) to honor artist Joyce Scott, recently named a MacArthur Fellow. The event will be held in MICA’s main building at 1300 Mount Royal Avenue, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. A performance by Scott will begin at 6:30 p.m.

Artist Zoe Friedman selected for Hampden library commission

Baltimore artist Zoe Friedman was selected to create an original work of art for the Hampden branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library as part of its upcoming renovation, during a meeting of the Public Art Commission last week.

The work will be funded as part of the city’s Percent for Art program, intended to enhance new and renovated public buildings. The artist was selected based on her credentials and has not yet developed any designs for the project, according to Ryan Patterson, public art administrator for the Baltimore Office of Promotion + the Arts.

Urban Action Community Development receives $45 million in tax credit authority

Urban Action Community Development of Baltimore has been awarded $45 million in New Markets Tax Credit Authority from a fund of the U. S. Treasury. The tax credit program allows the recipient to direct capital to underserved communities around the nation, including Baltimore.

This is the sixth New Markets Tax Credit award for UACD, whose president is C. William Struever of Cross Street Partners. Urban Action Community Development has not determined what projects will be funded by the tax credit authority, according to representative Joseph Summers.

Remington Wine Company gets a liquor license

The Remington Wine Company, a business planned for 329 W. 29th Street in Remington by Mitchell Pressman, formerly of the Chesapeake Wine Company, has a liquor license.

The city’s liquor board last week approved a request from Pressman to transfer the license from Sav-It Liquors, the building’s former tenant, for the new operation. Located behind R House, the new shop will specialize in “hand picked wine, beer, spirits, cheeses and charcuterie,” and the owner plans to open in December, according to a message posted on Facebook.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.