Hundreds showed up at the Contemporary museums exhibit at the historic Hutzler Palace Building.

Will Hutzler’s become Baltimore’s new hipster haven?

The first floor of the historic Hutzler Brothers Palace Building has been transformed into a temporary museum with Saturday’s opening of “The Ground,” a three-month exhibit of work by artist Michael Jones McKean. So many people came to the opening reception that the organizers ran out of wine glasses.

Michael Jones McKean.

But that’s just the beginning of an ambitious plan to “reintroduce” the 1888 building to the public, nearly 30 years after it closed as a department store and 20 years since it was last in use at all.

Once the museum exhibit is over, the owner, a company called AiNET, plans to renovate the Palace building at 210-218 North Howard Street for a mix of uses that will bring life back to it and the surrounding Bromo Tower arts district.

The Hutzler Brothers Palace Building on Howard Street

AiNET representatives say they are considering a variety of ideas for the building, including big data research labs, a technology incubator, a school, offices for high-tech companies, “Tokyo style” micro-apartments, or a combination of the above. They’re also open to the idea of letting the first floor remain available for cultural uses such as the current museum exhibit, a collaboration between AiNET and The Contemporary museum of Baltimore.

AiNET and The Contemporary will hold a community forum to discuss ideas for the building and the arts district on March 15, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., in the street-level exhibit space.

Brian Checco, the marketing supervisor for AiNET, said his company was pleased to provide space for the Contemporary exhibit because it can help show off the building and demonstrate its potential. He said the building has been dormant for so long that AiNET thought opening it up for a temporary exhibit would be a good way to reintroduce it to the community at large and signal that it is available for new uses.

As part of its planning process, he said, the company wants to know what the community would like and can support. He said the panel discussion is part of the process of formulating a vision for what the building can be.

Participants will include Richard Barth, Dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work; Anita Kassoff, executive director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry; Will Holman, the general manager of Open Works, a maker space on Greenmount Avenue; Deepak Jain, AiNET’s founder and president; and representatives from The Contemporary and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

“We’re thinking about high-tech residential, high-tech office and high-tech higher education,” Checco said. But instead of imposing a plan on the city, “we want to ask what the community needs…We really want to get community buy-in.”

AiNET is working with Chuck Breitenother of NAI KLNB to market the property, and it has hired Ashutosh Belgi of ATI in Columbia to be its architect.

Checco said AiNET expects to invest $5 million in the building, depending on what projects it ultimately undertakes.  He said the company is working with city officials to make sure zoning for the building will permit whatever they eventually decide to do and that the building’s name most likely will continue to be the Palace.

Pamela Sweeney, the AiNet senior vice president in charge of capital projects, said the company is committed to preserving its Romanesque front façade, which was designed by Baldwin and Pennington, and other details such as a large skylight on the top level. “We are very excited to bring life back to this unique building utilizing as much of the building’s history as possible,” she said.

Founded in 1993 and based in Beltsville, AiNET operates data centers and cloud environments. It has four locations in Maryland plus a development parcel in Leesburg, Virginia. Checco and Jain explained that AiNET bought the Palace building in 2014 as part of a multi-building transaction that also included the One Market Center building next door at Howard and Lexington streets. One Market Center contains the sort of data center that AiNet operates, and the Palace building is connected to it.

Jain said the purchase price, about $20 million, wouldn’t have been much less without the Palace building, so AiNET bought it. He said he remembers that his mother shopped there and he understands the building’s historical significance.  He also appreciates that it is close to the city’s subway and light rail systems and that plans are in the works to rebuild Lexington Market.

“This building has a rich history that lends itself to some magic,” he said. “It’s one of a kind. And on a walkability scale, it scores 98 out of 100. The question is, how can we address 21st-century challenges without losing who we are to get there?”

Another key attribute of the Palace building, Checco said, is that it “sits astride some of the most powerful connectivity networks in the world,” channeling an estimated 25 percent of the earth’s data flow, and is connected to AiNet’s sophisticated data center next door. He said that could be especially attractive for companies that need first-rate data access, such as genetics testing labs, and that is why one of the ideas for the Palace building is to create high-tech workspaces.

“We’re hoping to leverage the high-tech infrastructure that underpins the building, to create a forward-looking space unlike anything Baltimore has yet seen,” he said.

As long as it is providing work space, Checco said, AiNET thought it also would make sense to provide living quarters for people working on the AiNET “campus” or nearby. He said Baltimore doesn’t have any micro apartments comparable to what Tokyo has and that the Palace building could contain 40 to 60 apartments per floor if they each contained 200 to 400 square feet of space. He said the apartments could be rented monthly or yearly, and residents would have access to common areas as well as their own living quarters.

Checco said AiNET has been exploring the idea of working with an institution of higher education to create a learning center or incubator within the building. He declined to name the institutions that AiNET has been talking to.

The Contemporary’s exhibit is free and open to the public until May 19. Organizers say they were pleased with the turnout for the first-night reception, estimated at 500 to 1000 people over the course of the event. “This kind of turnout motivates us to do more to engage the community,” Jain said.

Hipsters @ Hutzler’s

Besides drawing the sort of young artist-hipster crowd that shows up for local museum openings, it attracted older people who either worked at Hutzler’s or shopped there and were curious to see the building again. Also present was at least one member of the Hutzler department store family.

The Contemporary and AiNET reopened one of the original revolving doors for people to enter, and AiNET painted the space so it worked as a gallery. The exhibit was designed so people standing outside on Howard Street can look in the store windows and view the artwork inside. The exhibit is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

While McKean’s exhibit is on view, Checco and Sweeney said, AiNET will continue to refine its vision for the Palace building and coordinate its plans with the city. They said the company is aiming to start construction in 2018.

Fox Building project gets Planning Commission approval

A developer’s $22 million to $23 million plan to convert the Fox Industries Building in Hampden to a mixed-use development containing about 90 apartments and lower level commercial space cleared a key hurdle this month when Baltimore’s Planning Commission approved a City Council bill that would rezone the property so the project can move ahead.

The property at 3100-3200 Falls Cliff Road, the first major manufacturing center of the Noxzema skin care conglomerate, has historically been zoned for industrial use. The developers, including Michael Fox and Edye Fox Abrams and the Time Group,  want to have the property designated an Industrial Planned Unit Development, which would allow a mix of uses. If the bill receives Council approval as expected, construction could begin later this year.

Red Emma’s expands on Greenmount Avenue

Red Emma’s, a worker-owned bookstore and café at 30 W. North Avenue, has opened an offshoot called the Greenmount Coffee Lab, serving “fine coffee and light fare.” It’s in the lobby of the Open Works maker space at 1400 Greenmount Avenue, next door to the Thread Coffee roastery. As part of the Red Emma’s family, Greenmount Coffee Lab is a cooperative, that is, it is 100 percent worker operated. Hours are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Saturday.

Anne Raines named Deputy Director of Maryland Historical Trust

Anne Raines has been named the new Deputy Director of the Maryland Historical Trust, the state agency dedicated to preserving and interpreting the best of Maryland’s past. She previously was the agency’s Capital Grants and Loans Administrator.

Cross Street Partners of Baltimore selected to develop an “innovation district” in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Cross Street Partners of Baltimore, headed by Bill Struever, has been selected to purchase and redevelop the GE Broadway Campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Its vision is to reposition the campus as a mixed-use innovation district, including commercial, retail, institutional, residential, hotel and community space. Construction could begin as early as this fall and be complete in three to four years.

D Center to discuss Complete Streets

An urban planning approach called Complete Streets, which strives to create public streets that prioritize the safety of people over the movement of cars, will be discussed during a forum presented by D Center at the Windup Space, 12 West North Avenue, on March 7 from 6:15 p.m. to 8:15 p.m.

Speakers will include Bikemore executive director Liz Cornish, architect and planner Klaus Philipsen, and City Council member Ryan Dorsey, who plans to introduce a bill to make the Complete Streets planning approach mandatory in Baltimore.

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Ed Gunts

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