Thursday, July 21, 2022

How much is too much?

What do  Yard 56 in Greektown, the Northwood Shopping Center, HarborPlace, Madison Park North, The Linden Apartments, the Rotunda, 300 East Pratt Street, an apartment building in Lauraville, Eddie's in Charles Village and Clipper Mill have in common? 

Its hard to see a common denominator between all these places all over Baltimore which include projects that are fully or partially complete and many more that are just plans on paper. The matter may become even more confusing if one adds in projects such as the $100 million Drexeline Town Center redevelopment in Drexel Hill, PA. the Arundel Plaza in Glen Burnie or a good number of so-called core-plus warehouses complexes.

David Bramble explains his Yard 56 project
to ULI members in May of 2021

Most people won't be any smarter if one tells them that all these places are owned by MCB, Real Estate LLC, a company headquartered in Baltimore and a  self described "vertically integrated private real estate investment, development, and management firm". If one adds that MCB was founded by David Bramble and Peter Pinkard, there may be some head nodding. Bramble has been in the news lately when he opted for HarborPlace, a steadily declining property that had been in the spotlight for years. Mayor Scott announced the deal with Bramble's MCB in his "state of the city" address earlier this year. Many news media desperately tried to learn a bit more about David Bramble, the public face of MCB and what he is up to. 

"This is a once in a lifetime chance. This is a Baltimore project that is going to be big. So many people who love Baltimore want to see this happen, and people realize how important this is to the fate of the central business district. We're going to do our best to deliver a world-class project." (Bramble as quoted in the Baltimore SUN )

Folks in Reservoir Hill may have read this with some doubt. They knew Bramble as the owner and developer of the 8 acres of empty fields along North Avenue across from Bolton Hill that once constituted low income housing development Madison Park North which had been known as "murder mall". The housing complex had been vacated in 2014 and MCB identified as the developer in 2016. The buildings were then demolished and the site has been sitting fallow ever since. Bramble described the project to the Baltimore SUN this way:

Proposed Madison North townhomes on North Avenue
(Rendering Bauer Architect)

[a] "marquee site with major implications for West Baltimore and the new innovation district.This is a super, super important project for the city and we want it to happen but it's going to require a lot of coordination and a lot of community involvement," (Bramble in 2016 as quouted in the SUN)
Apparently Madison Park North (as it is known know) will proceed with construction this year after various issues regarding Amtrak's new tunnels and Planning Commission approval have been resolved. A presentation of the design to UDAAP last year didn't go too well, the design shown to the Planning Commission was a modified plan and will be the base for the next round at UDAAP. 
Northwood Shopping Center redevelopment (MCB)

Bramble has been in the news before, mostly with some brief statement about the his latest project, for example when he bought Clipper Mill from the embattled ValStone property group. No plans have for the controversial Tractor building or the new townhomes have since emerged
“It was a difficult negotiation, but this is an amazing project in an amazing community in BaltimoreOur goal is to hit the ‘re-set’ button with the community and figure out how to get the remainder of this project off the ground" (Bramble to the Baltimore SUN of June 21).
High significance could also be attributed to Baltimore's longest stalled project, the former News American site at 300 east Pratt Street for which Bramble proposed at some point a 40 story tower. In June last year, though, with downtown office vacancies hitting records Bramble told the BBJ that he could not in good conscience develop such a big project now and declared it "on hold". The office space is still listed as "available" real estate and is seen now in the context of a redo HarborPlace.  Together, these present a heavy lift.

Empty lots are not indicative of MCB's abilities of getting things done. The company can point to a slew of successfully completed projects, especially in the shopping center area, among them Yard 56, the former Eddie's, the Arundel Plaza in Glen Burnie, and the Northwood shopping center near Morgan University which is nearing completion. 
Proposed project: The Linden (Marren Architects)

With all the projects, MCB's staff has grown significantly and includes two prominent former Struever Brothers team members, Amy Bonitz and Josh Neiman, the latter specifically to direct the many new residential development projects, which mostly exist only on paper. Most advanced is probably the second phase of Yard 56 near Hopkins' Bayview,  with a 225-unit apartment building and large medical center. 

The successfully completed projects notwithstanding, one has to wonder, how much can MCB stomach, how much attention can it pay each project and how healthy is it for Baltimore to amass so many pivotal sites in one hand? It may be unfair to ask such a question of a developer who expresses optimism, is bullish on Baltimore, takes risk, is a longtime Baltimore resident and a star in the minority owned business world. Bramble has a degree in politics from Princeton and a law degree as well. What more could one want?
Proposed tower at 300 East Pratt Street (HKS Architects)

Yet, Baltimore has a lot of experience with rising stars, great promises and ultimately failing projects. Residents of cities like Baltimore, always teetering at the edges of success or failure, often at the same time, we tend to look for rescue from a heroic figure that swoops in and solves all the woes. William Donald Schaefer comes to mind as a heroic mayor, Jim Rouse (HarborPlace, Cross Keys) was such a hero with a national reputation and after him his "student" Bill Struever in partnership with Ted Rouse until the great financial recession nearly wiped the famous SBE&R out. (Struever has a come-back as Cross Street Partners with a number of big projects such as Hoehn and and the Amtrak project). Pat Turner comes mind who put Locust Point in the map with his creative Silo Point condo project and then crashed with a mega project in Westport. The most recent example of a local hero is Kevin Plank and his Port Covington that made headlines around the country and is now slowly shrinking to a much more pragmatic scale and aspiration.
Some "game changing" projects never came off the ground, for example the News American site on Pratt Street which saw many giant tower renderings on paper while the reality remained to be a sea of parked cars. In the case of the site of the former Mechanic Theatre, there is a big nothing after demolition years ago. Other projects that once really put Baltimore "on the map" have moved past their prime and have turned into liabilities. Such a project was Cross Keys until Caves Valley developers came in to infuse new life. The two HarborPlace pavilions rose and sank like the sun from their success under the Rouse company to decay and broken promises under General Growth and then Ashkenazy. Meanwhile other developers finish one project after another, such as Beatty Development at Harbor East and HarborPoint but at a heavy cost to Baltimore's future tax income thanks to generous TIF bonds. Beatty in collaboration with Dan Henson (also a former Struever partner)  is now also addressing affordable housing in the very large Perkins Homes and Oldtown project duo.
Planned Lauraville apartments (Alexander Design Studio)

MCB's projects may not be as flashy and not as subsidized, their designs range from modest and plain to elaborate, they are prepared from a wide range of different architects. Regardless, the success of these projects is urgent for Baltimore, either for their prominence (HarborPlace, News American, or for the contributions that the many new multifamily housing projects will make towards mitigating the national and local housing crisis (Madison North). The projects were initiated during a time when residential real estate was flying high and signify a pivot of the company from commercial and retail to residential where the company has less experience. An economic stricture is on the horizon, whether it will be a full recession, another financial crisis, a bust of another real estate bubble, or something altogether new remains to be seen. 

Can MCB do them all this? An inquiry with David Bramble with a request to answer a few questions about capacity and financial risks for this article remained unanswered. Not surprising given how much the man has on his plate. Baltimoreans can only hope for the best while trying to get better acquainted with one of its more enigmatic development heroes. 

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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