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Transit-oriented development concept proposed for Penn Station

Developer hired by Amtrak envisions housing, shops, offices on unused train station land

By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

8:01 PM EDT, March 13, 2013

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Homes, offices and shops would sprout around Baltimore's Penn Station under a preliminary plan developed for Amtrak for the midtown site.

The national passenger railroad tapped Beatty Development, the Baltimore-based developer responsible for Harbor East and Harbor Point, late last year to create a master plan and lead the redevelopment of about seven acres of underused land around the century-old train station.

Beatty Development's vision calls for the construction of up to 1.5 million square feet of new residences and commercial space at a cost of about $500 million over the next decade.

The project would span the divide between Mount Vernon and Charles North created by Interstate 83 and the rail lines and anchor the budding Station North arts and entertainment district.

"Station North is an amazing area," said Michael L. Ricketts, vice president of development for Beatty Development, which Amtrak selected through a competitive process. "It just needs investment. Investment around the train station, a transit link, will spill into North Avenue and the whole neighborhood. It is transformational for Baltimore."

The master plan shows housing on a parking lot north of the station bordered by North Charles, Lanvale and St. Paul streets. Two office buildings would rise, one with ground-level shops across Charles Street from the station and the other across St. Paul Street.

Developers envision a canopy soaring over the station's platform, creating a visual connection between the train station and the new development. Beatty Development also would renovate the upper three levels of the station, possibly for office space, Ricketts said.

Whatever is ultimately built would depend on market demand and available financing, Ricketts added. And what Amtrak wants.

Amtrak, which owns most of the property, now will take the Beatty plan and develop a strategic plan for the station that will also examine the station's short- and long-range needs for high speed, intercity and commuter rail. Amtrak's ridership in Baltimore grew 8 percent in its fiscal year ended Sept. 30.

An Amtrak official declined to comment on the master plan, saying in an email that the rail operator is just starting the planning process.

"At this early stage, Amtrak and our partners are focused on developing a viable plan for Baltimore Penn Station that incorporates the growing transportation needs of the region and creates dynamic and vibrant development opportunities that will benefit the community as a whole," Stephen Gardner, vice president of northeast corridor infrastructure and investment development, said in the email.

Amtrak has been looking at ways to maximize revenue from its underused station properties for years. In Philadelphia, Amtrak leased land across from 30th Street Station to a developer that built a 28-story office tower that opened in 2005.

Similar planning is under way for Amtrak's Union Station in Washington, D.C. A 20-year master plan released last summer proposes station improvements to triple passenger capacity and create a new urban neighborhood with public plazas, shops, hotels, offices and residences.

Amtrak has spent about $7 million over the past three years improving Penn Station, it's eighth-busiest station, installing new concourse windows, ceiling tiles, lighting and an electronic train information board. An additional roughly $1 million in upgrades are planned this year, including restroom renovations, painting, landscaping and a new video-enabled Visit Baltimore welcome sign.

Baltimore officials view Penn Station as a key access point into the city. It's not only served by Amtrak, but by the state's MARC commuter train service.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake formed an advisory committee last year to come up with ideas to improve the rail corridor leading into the city with clean-up and "greening" projects and to encourage Amtrak to improve Penn Station.

"I think it's absolutely fantastic," said Kaliope Parthemos, the city's deputy chief of economic and neighborhood development, of the development plans. "It provides the transit-oriented-development that site needs."

High-density, mixed-use development close to mass transit has become a new model for planners in Baltimore and elsewhere seeking to spur redevelopment while easing suburban sprawl and traffic.

In the Baltimore area, which has largely unconnected systems of commuter bus and rail service, such projects have been slow to take hold. For example, Metro Centre in Owings Mills, where apartments, offices and shops are being built near a Metro station, is still a work in progress.

City and community leaders see the Penn Station project as crucial to the developing Station North district.

"This truly is a gateway," said Don Donahue, president of the Charles North Community Association. "This is the first image many people have when they first come into Baltimore. We have to pay attention to it."

Ricketts said it's possible housing could be developed first — as early as in the next several years — on the parking lot known as the Lanvale site north of the station.

"We have a lot of empty parking lots in Charles North," Donahue said. "We need to increase the density of people living in Charles North to sustain a viable, lively entertainment district and commercial district on Charles Street and North Avenue."

The Rev. Dale Dusman, pastor of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, several blocks north of Penn Station, said the community has been waiting for development on the Lanvale site for years.

"We've been waiting and waiting and waiting for something exciting to happen," Dusman said. "There have been so many proposals over the years. A lot of great things have happened on Charles Street, and more is happening on North Avenue. That lot is so crucial to say, 'This is a special place.'"

Beatty Development has already begun showing off its proposal to city officials and business and community groups, including the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"That was exciting to see a vision developing for an area that has been underserved and underutilized for many years," said Donald Fry, GBC president. "This is very much conceptual in nature, but it's something we're very interested in."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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