Smaller apartment building conversions filling gaps in Baltimore

Some of Baltimore’s newest apartment towers offer posh amenities such as rooftop pools, yoga studios and dog spas, but many city renters would be content with a new washer-dryer and a bike rack — and want to pay far less.

In the shadow of several flashy projects open or underway near the Inner Harbor, where rents range from $2,000 for a small studio to $8,000 a month for the penthouse, Baltimore is seeing a steady stream of smaller, more affordable new apartment projects.

They generally ask less than $1,500 a month and cater largely to young single people new to Baltimore. They reuse commercial or industrial buildings close to where people work or go out, with tax credits and other financing making the dollars work. And some hope the projects may help offset population losses in neighborhoods elsewhere in the city that are seeing far less investment.

Builders and developers say the converted properties lease swiftly, particularly in and around downtown, where few lived a decade ago.

“At an affordable rate, the demand is endless,” said Yonah Zahler, the founder and CEO of Zahlco, a boutique Baltimore developer that’s converted seven buildings with about 300 units and has many more on the way.

The 824 North Calvert lofts are located in an old garage converted into apartments by Zahlco, a boutique Baltimore developer. The project represents a trend of apartment conversions in smaller buildings in and around downtown Baltimore.

A study commissioned by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and released last year found the area could absorb nearly 7,000 more units over the next five years. Roughly two-thirds of the demand is coming from young single people and couples, more than half from outside Baltimore, the study found.

That describes Zach Colado, who moved from Berlin, Germany, two months ago when his astrophysicist girlfriend was contracted by the Space Telescope Science Institute on the Johns Hopkins University campus. A massage therapist working at a Hopkins bookstore, he takes a university shuttle to work.

“I just love cities,” Colado said. “You’re hungry and you go out your door and turn left twice and have all these choices.”

At 34, he thinks he’s among the older tenants in his building, recently opened by Zahlco in Mount Vernon, though he believes most are professionals working nearby. The Calvert Street building is a converted 1940s garage that houses the pizza place Iggies.

Zahlco aims to preserve the character of the buildings it converts, while offering modern amenities, Zahler said. The 50-unit lofts project at 824 N. Calvert St. features a gym with a personal trainer available for hire, big windows, a vast skylight and indoor garden, WiFi, all modern appliances and parking. The lobby looks like that of a trendy hotel.

“For $1,200 to $1,500 for a one-bedroom, we are going to give them the most stylish building we can give them, but the most important amenity is the walkability,” Zahler said.

Similar building conversions are sprinkled throughout downtown and adjacent neighborhoods as far east as Johns Hopkins Hospital, west to the University of Maryland Biopark and north to Charles Village and Hampden. Some developers are building in transitional neighborhoods like Reservoir Hill with the support of nonprofit groups.

Baltimore has a large pool of historic structures that can take advantage of tax credits to help finance their conversion, said Al Barry, a real estate consultant. Smaller projects also have “less economic pressure than the ones financed with large institutional investors promising large returns,” he said.

Still the number of new apartment units either coming or recently opened in the city is staggering. An informal citywide tally of new apartments — affordable to fancy — kept by a long-time real estate observer Owen Rouse, a senior vice president at the real estate firm Manekin LLC, finds more than 9,000.

“At some level the number of new units is overwhelming, and where are the people coming from when the statistics say Baltimore is losing population?” he said. “I don’t know how the movie is going to end.”

Rouse did say it’s easier to imagine who will fill the smaller apartment buildings versus the pricey towers.

Rebecca Williams, a Hopkins graduate student, and Emily Neubig, a University of Maryland law school student, both chose apartments in smaller projects near the city center for the convenience to school and other attractions. On a recent day they watched their dogs play in a dog park off Howard Street in between an old high school converted to apartments and a building turned into a coffee shop and self storage.

Their older buildings offer high ceilings and exposed brick, though nothing else is fancy. They agreed that the rehabs and luxury high-rises will bring people and activity, improving the city and potentially reducing crime, their main concern.

“There are certain things about the big, new buildings that I wish I had, like a gym and security-wise,” Williams said. “But could I get a two-bedroom for $1,300 a month?”

Jaimi Small, a 36-year-old technical designer at Under Armour, chose her smaller, historic building in Upper Fells Point after living in one of the newer high-rises that she said lacked “charm.”

Her new building is close to work, “but not too close,” and she liked that it had off-street, locked parking.

“My building has way more character than any new building,” Small said. “That’s one of the reasons I love Baltimore, is the history and the architecture. … I can go to Merritt if I want a pool or the gym.”

Small’s apartment was built by Edgemont Builders, which has converted large old rowhouses, a former church and a former cigar factory into small apartment buildings around the city. Jake Wittenberg, president of Edgemont, said residents get the benefit of new interiors, including appliances, often in historic buildings.

“You’re getting a place to live — a nice place, everything is new and we wire for WiFi.” he said. “And it’s where you want to live and you can afford it.”

Eugene Poverni, CEO of Poverni Sheikh Group, said most demand now comes from “workforce” renters, with an income of about $50,000 and a job with the city, a university or other major city employer and who want to spend $1,000 to $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

His firm develops and lends to others to develop these kinds of apartments, as well as some more affordable apartments ($850 to $1,000) and some higher end ($1,300 to $2,000). He touts the benefits: Nearly all of his portfolio’s 25 buildings were vacant and all are drawing tenants from outside Baltimore.

“The 21-to-30-year-olds on their first or second job out of school are attracted to the city like magnets,” he said. “They’re shifting the demographics. If the city focuses on schools, ultimately we can hold them.”

He and others also say the high-rises serve an important role, bringing in high-dollar residents who lure more restaurants and shops for everyone.

Two high-rises are underway on Light street, including Quester Properties’ 500-foot, 394-unit glass tower at Conway Street where expected rent will hit $8,000 for penthouses. They will compete for luxury-seeking residents with the Bozzuto’s 292-unit Anthem House in Locust Point, which opened last year, and the recently opened 1405 Point, with 289 units in Harbor Point.

Annie Milli, executive director of Live Baltimore, which promotes city living, said the high-rise projects aim to lure empty nesters who may have property elsewhere and young professionals with top-tier salaries who don’t plan to stay long or don’t want a mortgage. They mostly serve a different tenant than the smaller buildings, she said.

“It’s great to have a mix,” she said.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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