Thursday, June 2, 2016

When Baltimore set off a national trend

The year was 1994 and Baltimore's #1 entrepreneurial wunderkind was Douglas Becker, then 28 years old, and already a millionaire profiled in the Fortune Magazine . Although Becker had graduated from Baltimore's Gilman school, their business Sylvan Learning Systems, a tutoring and testing services company, was located in Columbia, Maryland.

In 1994 Kurt Schmoke was Mayor, Harbor East was still Inner Harbor East and largely a pipe-dream that consisted of a grid of paved roads, historic lampposts, and a traffic circle paved with Belgian cobble stones adorned with a shiny Polish monument gifted to the City to remember Katyn. People at the time debated the wisdom of those public dollars having been spent on new bulkheads, a promenade and all the streets that now sat there with no buildings in sight even though it was declared an Empowerment Zone and the land belonged to bakery magnate Paterakis who only reluctantly had entered the development game upon insistence of then Mayor Schaefer. Why shoving all this money towards such a rich person many people asked?

Schmoke, an Ivy League graduate, successful attorney and first elected African American Mayor in Baltimore was brimming with ideas such as a renewal of Sandtown Winchester, legalization of drugs and a new Eco Industrial Park for the Baltimore brownfields of Fairfield and later the idea that the best location for a Convention Center hotel would be Inner Harbor East..

In 1996 Schmoke landed a coup that reverberated around the country and was worth a national article by noted syndicated  Neil Peirce who concluded that President Clinton's urban policies were working: Sylvan Learning Centers relocated from leafy suburban Howard County to Baltimore's Inner Harbor East: A pioneer and one of the first corporations to revert the decades old trend in the other direction.
The decision of Sylvan Learning Systems to move its world headquarters to the Baltimore waterfront is the kind of development the Clinton administration dreamed of when it proposed empowerment zones for America's cities.
Sylvan opened its offices this month in a $32 million complex, which also includes apartments, in the Baltimore empowerment zone. It's the first major corporation to move to central Baltimore in more than 20 years and eventually will employ 600. ``There's real excitement for our employees and customers in a downtown location,'' [Becker] told me. ``You have to come to the city for first-rate amenities, culture, the heart of commerce - things you're hard-pressed to find in the suburbs.''
(Neil Peirce)
Sylvan Learning, offices, retail and housing, Harbor East's first development
The new Sylvan complex was Harbor East's first development. It was designed by Peter Fillat with Michael Beatty as partner, fit into a masterplan by noted architect Stan Eckstut (who had master-planned Battery Park in NYC), and includes offices, retail and housing with parking wrapped into the block interior. The SUN reported:
The greeting on their employee handbooks seemed to sum it up -- "Welcome to the Other Side."
For the more than 500 employees of Sylvan Learning Systems, their first day yesterday at Sylvan's new downtown office represented a rare occurrence: a large national company moving its headquarters from the suburbs into Baltimore.
"There's definitely some symbolism to it all," said Peter Cohen, the president of Sylvan's learning center division, as he sat in the expansive office building near the Inner Harbor. "There's the hope of revitalizing the city and its school system, and to improve the overall interest in the city."
Fast forward to 2016: Sylvan has long been sold by Becker. The current Sylvan CEO, John McAuliffe, sees the matter in a much more sober and traditional manner. His company headquarters in Harbor East, down to just 125 people, was simply moved to a 25,000sf space in Hunt Valley this week. Yes, Hunt Valley!

The good news: Doug Becker, is now CEO of Laureate Education, Inc., the world's leading network of higher education institutions (per their own website), not headquartered in Baltimore but still with a presence that is 10 times that of Sylvan and still located at Harbor East on Exeter Street. In other words: Employees still like urban locations. Becker's 1996 move has been copied all over the country with corporations moving back into cities and suburban office parks such as Hunt Valley are struggling to add some urban touches.

As for the wunderkind status: That mantel had to be passed to CEO Kevin Plank who also started a company in very young years in Columbia, MD. His move to Baltimore once again caused big waves. Writes up about him are legion all across the world. His current expansion plans anticipate one of the largest urban brownfield developments in the country. His development plans for Port Covington and the record high public incentives are as disputed by Baltimoreans as the Harbor East plans had been in the nineties. Under Armour's plans will be up for public debate today at 2:20pm before the City's Planning Commission at the 8th floor of 417 East Fayette Street.


Klaus Philipsen,
FAIA

BBJ article about Sylvan moving out