A rendering of The Compass, a mixed-used development planned for the west side of downtown Baltimore. Rendering courtesy of Westside Partners LLC.

Developers of the $100 million Compass mixed-use project on the West Side of downtown have missed a key deadline for acquiring 18 city-owned parcels needed to begin construction.

They also suffered a setback when one of the main team members, Landmark Partners, withdrew from the project.

June 2 was the target date for the developers selected by the city, Westside Partners LLC, to satisfy a series of requirements that public officials set before they will sell parcels in the area bounded by Fayette, Howard and Lexington streets and Park Avenue, including the former Read’s drug store.

Kim Clark, executive vice president of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), said the city is giving the developers more time.

“This is the ‘target’ deadline but not the absolute deadline,” Clark said in an email message, when asked about the June 2 date. “We are still working with them on the acquisition of the parcels.”

The development plan calls for a mix of existing buildings and new construction to contain apartments, offices, a hotel, parking, retail space and other uses. That makes it one of the most ambitious and complex projects envisioned for downtown Baltimore. According to a briefing session led by City Council member Eric Costello last September, the first phase is the construction of 262 apartments and a 400-space garage.

The land, dubbed the Superblock, is actually close to two blocks. It was assembled by the city and offered for redevelopment after two previous teams, going back the 1990s, failed to move ahead with their projects.

The sale price to Westside Partners is $4,500,001. The properties in the sale have the following addresses: 201-213, 215-219, 223, 227 and 231 West Lexington Street; 101, 105, 107, 117, 119 and 121 North Howard Street; 206-218, 220, 222, 224 and 226 West Fayette Street; 221 Marion Street; portions of 106-112 Park Avenue; and three public alleys. Many of the buildings appear to be in poor condition, with paint peeling, graffiti and, in some cases, trees growing out of them.

Former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young selected the bid from Westside Partners over five other “responsive proposals” submitted after the city sought developers in March of 2019, and he was a member of the city’s Board of Estimates when it approved a land disposition agreement (LDA) with the developers on December 2, 2020, giving them exclusive rights to work on the project.

The Board of Estimates session was one of Young’s last public meetings as mayor and it put the onus on Brandon Scott, who became mayor on Dec. 8, 2020, to follow through and make sure the project got built.

The goal of selling the parcels is “to promote the continued revitalization of the Westside of Downtown Baltimore through the redevelopment of the properties,” the BDC wrote to the Board of Estimates.

“The Developer is planning a large-scale, mixed-use rehabilitation of some of the existing structures with a significant new construction component,” the BDC said. “The concept includes market-rate rental housing, retail, office, co-working, artist live/work-space, an entertainment venue and a hotel.”

The buildings had an appraised value of $3.96 million as of July 2019, so they are being sold “at or above” the appraised value, the BDC said. The developers signed a commitment to comply with terms of the city’s Minority and Women’s Business Enterprise program, the agency added.

Initial announcements about The Compass said Westside Partners would be led by Landmark Partners and the Vitruvius Company, both based in Baltimore, with Partnered of Pittsburgh and Mayson-Dixon Companies of Baltimore as additional team members. Mayson-Dixon has since taken on a larger role within the team. Construction was tentatively expected to start this year. BDC president and CEO Colin Tarbert said in a statement that Westside Partners planned to invest “over $100 million.”

Tarbert is quoted on the developer’s website as saying The Compass is one of three Westside projects that together could help transform the west side of downtown.

“If we could get all three projects going – Lexington Market, Royal Farms Arena and The Compass – you would have a new center of gravity in the traditional downtown business district on the west side,” Tarbert said. “That area used to be the commercial, five-and-dime, department store hub of the city. We could create that vibrancy again.”

The land disposition agreement approved by Baltimore’s Board of Estimates called for the developers to meet several tasks within 18 months of the board’s approval in order to settle on the properties, creating a target deadline of June 2, 2022.

The LDA provided that a phasing plan for the various components of the development, together with schematics, was due nine months after the Board of Estimates took action on Dec. 2, 2020. Design development plans and construction plans were supposed to follow, all within 18 months.

The disposition agreement gives the Baltimore Development broad authority to grant extensions to the 18-month deadline, including extensions for delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also does not impose any penalty on the developers for failure to meet various deadlines, other than termination of the land disposition agreement.

The development team wasn’t required to make a down payment toward the $4.5 million purchase price.

Because the property is in a city historic district, Baltimore’s preservation commission would have to approve any plans to alter building exteriors or raze structures – a process that can sometimes require a series of meetings over several months. That public review process has not begun.

The BDC has not set new deadlines for the developers. Clark said in a message this week that “we expect them to meet the timelines stated in the LDA.” She referred additional questions to the developers.

Christopher Janian, the president of Vitrivius and original lead developer along with Jon Pannoni and George Watson of Landmark, said in an email message last month that the project is “moving forward.” He said he would be happy to set up a call to answer questions about the project but never did so.

When Young selected the team, Landmark’s largest venture was City House Charles, an eight-story office and retail building designed to rise behind two facades of the former Grand Central nightclub at 1001-1003 North Charles Street.

The plan for The Compass was similar to the City House Charles development in that it called for new buildings to rise above and behind historic buildings in the foreground. In addition, the Compass team used SM+P Architects, the firm that designed City House Charles, to prepare renderings of its preliminary design. Gensler has been announced as the lead architect for the Howard Street project.

Since Young selected Westside Partners, Landmark experienced delays in completing the City House Charles project, after construction work at the site undermined the foundation of the adjacent building at 4 E. Eager St., requiring that structure to be demolished. Expected at one point to open in 2021, City House Charles still is not complete.

Pannoni, of Landmark, said in an email message last month that his company has not been part of the Compass project for more than a year. Its withdrawal came after reports surfaced about the construction problems with City House Charles, and the name Landmark Partners does not appear on the Compass website or other marketing materials about the project.

Janian was part of a separate team known as Park Avenue Partners that was selected by the BDC to build apartments in the 400 block of Park Avenue, another project that involved a combination of new construction and renovation of historic structures. Janian proposed to incorporate the shell of the vacant building that had housed Martick’s Restaurant Francaise, 214 W. Mulberry St., which he acquired separately.

Park Avenue Partners has failed to move ahead with construction of the $30 million, six-story, 94-unit apartment project tentatively known as 400 Park Avenue, after a former garage on the site was demolished and designs were approved by city agencies.

In April 2021, the property was put up for auction in a substitute trustees’ sale, triggered after Park Avenue Partners defaulted on a loan from a private lender, according to Alex Cooper Auctioneers and legal documents on its website.

The auction was cancelled at the last minute, but construction never started on the apartments. The development site is currently filled with rubble and weeds, and the buildings that were to be salvaged, including Martick’s, are covered with graffiti.

Walking tour of downtown Baltimore

Baltimore Heritage executive director Johns Hopkins will lead a walking tour of downtown Baltimore during a 90-minute “nosh and network” event organized by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore on Wednesday, July 27, from noon to 1:30 p.m.

Part of a recurring series called Lunch with DPOB, the event is free but open only to Downtown Partnership members. To register, go to www.GoDowntownBaltimore.com. To join the partnership, contact Chrissy Schifkovitz at cschifkovitz@dpob.org or 410-528-7717.

Annabel Lee Tavern in Canton is for sale

The “cozy/eerie” Edgar Allan Poe-themed Annabel Lee Tavern at 601 S. Clinton St. in Canton is up for sale, according to Jeff Jerome, curator emeritus of the Poe House and Museum at 203 N. Amity St. and a patron who has a cocktail there named in his honor. “If you want to have a final visit, you should do it soon,” Jerome warns on Facebook.

An employee who answered the phone today confirmed that the tavern is for sale but said it remains open. The tavern run by Kurt Bragunier closed briefly in 2017 but reopened after gaining new investors.

Townhouse development site up for auction in Hoes Heights

A 1.1-acre development site approved for construction of 16 townhouses has gone up for auction in Baltimore’s Hoes Heights neighborhood. Alex Cooper Auctioneers is offering the properties at 1100 to 1128 ½ Falls Hill Drive in an online-only auction that ends Tuesday, Aug. 2, at 11 a.m. The land is on the east side of Falls Road between Cold Spring Lane and 40th Street.

Renovated Peale building officially reopens Aug. 13

Save the date: After a five-year, $5.5 million renovation, the Peale Museum at 225 Holliday St. will reopen Aug. 13 as The Peale, a cultural center for the 21st century. Its slogan is “Baltimore’s Community Museum.

A “grand reopening party” and Open House has been scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Aug. 13, the 208th anniversary of the Peale’s original opening. People can register to attend at www.thepealecenter.org. The Peale is closed between now and Aug. 12 to prepare for the reopening.

Mount Vernon Place Conservancy seeks volunteers for Dec. 1 Washington Monument lighting

The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, a non-profit group that maintains the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon and the public squares around it, is taking over the holiday lighting ceremony for the monument this year and looking for sponsors and volunteers who can help with the event. It also wants people to fill out a brief survey.

The date for this year’s lighting event is Thursday, Dec. 1. The online survey is at https://forms.gle/guGN2GU2x76px8m09. Potential volunteers, vendors and sponsors can contact the conservancy by sending a message to: monumentlighting@mvpconservancy.org.

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Ed Gunts

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

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