Developers eager to convert downtown office buildings to residences
Nearly 1,000 market-rate apartments would be added to downtown Baltimore in the next few years if three projects announced in recent days are completed.

"It seems like it all came to fruition this week, but we've been working for a year, year and a half, to get to this point," said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership, which launched a campaign in spring 2011 to encourage the conversion of underused downtown office buildings into residences.

The newest plans include the renovation of one of Baltimore's most distinctive buildings, the conversion of a former department store warehouse and the overhaul of several buildings off a heavily trafficked city center corner. They are the most recent additions to a steady stream of plans that developers, hoping to cash in on rising demand for urban living, have put forward for downtown apartments.

"When you have nearly 100 percent occupancy, there should be floods of development," Fowler said Friday.

Apartment buildings downtown, on average, have occupancy rates above 95 percent, he said. It's one of his favorite statistics. The other is that population downtown grew 130 percent between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, the largest gain in the city.

In 2000, just over 1,700 people lived in the census tract bounded by North Paca Street on the west, President Street on the east, Pratt Street on the south and Franklin Street on the north. By 2010, about 4,000 people lived in that area, which the Downtown Partnership branded "The 401," after the number the U.S. Census Bureau gave it as an identifier.

It's a remarkably diverse group of people, too. About half of those living there in 2010 were in their 20s, but the rest of the population was spread throughout older age groups. Half identified themselves as white, about 1,000 said they were black and the rest said they were Asian or biracial. The median household income in the tract is $49,600.

"These buildings attract nurses, students, university professors and administrators," Fowler said.

More strollers are appearing, he said, and dogs are proliferating.

Fowler and others who have studied the residential downtown market don't see the demand dying, either. In August, the Downtown Partnership released a study that concluded the city center should be able to support about 5,800 new residential units in the next five years. Almost 60 percent of those units should be rental apartments, it said.

"By the end of this decade … we will have unprecedented volumes of demand for apartments," said Greg Leisch, founder and CEO of Delta Associates, a real estate research and advisory firm based in Northern Virginia.

The continued high demand is the result of several factors, he said. There has been a shift in mindset in recent years away from homeownership toward renting, Leisch said. As the economy improves, people who are living together to save money will begin "un-coupling" and occupying their own spaces, he said. Plus, he said, as job creation improves, more people will move out on their own.

And downtown seems to be the right place for new residences, he said. People of all ages are leaning toward urban living and more people are choosing to live without cars, making dense development more popular, he said.

"I don't think there's a mismatch between where our product is being developed and where the demand is likely to be," Leisch said.

That said, Leisch cautioned there could be a glut of apartments in the short term if a lot of buildings open at the same time. But in the long term, the demand is there to fill them, he said.

In order to satisfy the demand, and to deal with declining demand for office space, the city has pushed building owners to consider changing the use of their structures.

"We've looked at it from every different angle, and it's clear that commercial to residential is the way to go," said City Councilman Bill Cole, who represents downtown.

In April 2011, the Downtown Partnership sent letters to the owners of more than 20 downtown commercial buildings that the group had identified in a recent study as being underused.

Their buildings, the letter said, have problems — "an uncertain future" or "serious vacancy rates" or "a protracted schedule for redevelopment."