Two Mount Vernon redevelopment projects are moving ahead after Baltimore’s preservation commission this week approved designs that will significantly alter a prominent block of N. Charles Street.
Landmark Partners won approval for its plan to build an eight-story office building called City House Charles in place of the Grand Central nightclub at 1001-1003 N. Charles Street. Developers say they have already identified tenants for 100 percent of the office portion.
And Agora Inc. was permitted to transform the former Hynson, Westcott and Dunning building at 1030 N. Charles St., to a new hub for its growing workforce. It will be the 13th building renovated by Agora along the Charles Street corridor, which has become a virtual campus for its employees.
The two projects represent more than $20 million worth of private investment in midtown Baltimore and will bring hundreds of workers to the area, filling approximately 88,000 square feet of office and retail space. If both proceed as planned, it will be the first time in years that Mount Vernon has seen two major projects underway on one block.
The first to move to the construction stage is the Agora building, at the north end of the 1000 block. According to Jean Hankey, Agora’s vice president of management and development, the company closed on its purchase of the Hynson building on Thursday.
Hankey said the sale price is $5.75 million for two lots, which Agora will consolidate, and the renovation budget is $7.5 million, for a total investment of $13.25 million. She said Agora plans to start construction immediately and finish by the summer of 2020. The renovation will give Agora 50,000 square feet of additional office space. She said Agora will not seek historic tax credits for the project, even though the building is in a historic district, because that can be a lengthy process and “we move too quickly.”
Founded in 1978, Agora and its affiliates publish books and newsletters and organize seminars on subjects such as finance, health and travel. Hankey said the firm now has 1,500 employees in the Baltimore area.
Hankey said Agora plans to use the renovated Hynson building to house 300 employees from seven divisions of the company, most of whom are currently working in rented office space around the area. She said the only non-Agora tenant will be a dentist’s office, which already leases space in the building and will be moved to a different location there.
The Hynson building, designed by Howard Sill and built in 1921-22, is best known as the former home of the company that invented Mercurochome, an iodine substitute.
Plans by Jim Suttner of Rohrer Studio call for the installation of six large windows on the south side of the main building, where the primary entrance will be, and reopening a window on the north side. The surface parking lot next to the building will be landscaped and a low-rise annex along Morton Street will be renovated and given more windows.
The Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) approved the project unanimously. The longest discussion was about the company’s plans to put the main entrance on the south side of building, rather than using the original front entrance on Charles Street, and how much of a balance there should be. Suttner said the Charles Street entrance will continue to be used.
Hankey said the parking lot will be used by Agora employees.
For the Grand Central building at the south end of the block, Landmark Partners had a more difficult time getting approval for its plans because the architects wanted to paint unpainted masonry on the facades and install windows on the Eager Street side.
In the end, the commission overruled its staff’s recommendation and unanimously approved the design Landmark proposed. The action indicated it’s possible for property owners to gain approval to paint unpainted brick in Mount Vernon, assuming they make a convincing enough argument for doing so.
From the beginning, City House Charles has been planned as a combination of restoration and new construction, with the front portions of 1001 and 1003 N. Charles St. targeted for preservation and a new office building to rise behind them.
Preservation planner Walter Gallas told the commission CHAP’s design guidelines for Mount Vernon discourage painting masonry that hasn’t been painted before, and they discourage punching new windows in a façade that faces a street. Gallas said staff recommended conditional approval of the project, but not the exterior painting or the new windows.
But architects Chuck Patterson and Walter Schamu of SM+P Architects, working for Landmark, argued the proposed changes would make City House Charles a better project, without destroying the integrity of the historic portions of the buildings being retained.
Patterson said he wanted to paint the red brick a shade of off-white, with black shutters, as a way of unifying the historic sections of the project and the eight-story addition. He and others also said the brick is in poor condition and that the paint would help conceal some of the imperfections.
The developers brought up a paint specialist and a masonry expert to reinforce their argument that the exposed brick is in poor shape and that painting it won’t cause more harm to the masonry.
Other speakers talked about the economic importance of the project and argued the design needs to be approved so the project can move ahead.
City Councilman Robert Stokes, who rarely comes to CHAP hearings to discuss preservation issues, told the commission that tenants have been identified for 100 percent of the office space in the building, and warned they will go elsewhere if it isn’t completed on schedule. The property sits on the edge of Stokes’ district.
“Baltimore City sometimes has a name for not being business friendly,” Stokes said. “If we don’t move forward, I think that label will be on this project.”
Panel member Larry Gibson said he initially intended to oppose the painting plan but changed his mind during the meeting. He said he had assured his wife before that hearing that “I was going to do everything I could to stop painting bricks on Charles Street…because Charles Street’s special. We don’t let much happen to buildings on Charles Street. I came to this meeting fully intending to fight to the end against that painting.”
But after hearing the testimony, “I frankly have been persuaded by the condition report” about the brick, he said.
Jon Pannoni and George Watson, principals of Landmark Partners, said the development team plans to start construction in March 2020 and complete the work in 12 to 14 months, putting the opening at mid-2021.
Pannoni said the project will have 38,000 square feet of retail and office space, including 6,000 square feet of street-level commercial space. He and Watson declined to name any of the potential office tenants Stokes referred to, saying only that some are located in Baltimore now and some would be new to the city.
The developers said the prospective tenants have signed letters of intent to lease space in the project, a precursor to signing a lease.
Watson and Patterson told CHAP their vision is to have a full-service restaurant on the corner and a café behind the façade at 1003 N. Charles, a dining space that will open onto the building’s main lobby.
Landmark bought the 15,000-square-foot Grand Central property in February for $1.4 million. Pannoni declined to give a figure for the cost of building the new office space. He said a general contractor has not yet been selected.
The March 2020 start date is significant for patrons and employees of Grand Central, one of Baltimore’s largest gay clubs, which has remained open while Landmark firms up its plans.
When Landmark acquired the property last winter, it prepared a press release saying the club would close Oct. 1 to make way for the new development. The principals later backed off that date, saying only that the club will close when they are ready to move ahead on construction.
Pannoni said this week that Oct. 1 is no longer the target closing date and that it’s possible Grand Central could remain open into the new year, although he did not offer a more specific time frame than that.
He noted that the liquor license for Grand Central was transferred last spring from former owner Don Davis to his team; the current license allows the club to serve alcohol until April 30, 2020.
This story has been updated.