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Let Baltimore lead

January 14, 1997

In a move that could have great value for Hagerstown if it succeeds, Baltimore city officials are considering a consultant's suggestion to renovate old downtown office buildings into new apartments. It wouldn't be cheap, but it would bring thousands of new upper and middle-income residents to the center city.

The proposal came from the Legg Mason Realty Group, which says the number of residents living in downtown Baltimore could double to 30,000. Instead of being an area which empties out at 5 p.m., downtown Baltimore could be a thriving section of town around the clock, they say.

But it wouldn't be cheap, Legg Mason officials say, and much of the cost would have to be paid for through a combination of a property-tax freeze (for 40 years), tax-exempt financing and housing tax credits.

Of the $13.5 million it would cost to renovate a building on North Calvert Street to hold 138 apartment units, about $5.5 million would have to come from tax abatements or credits. Otherwise, Legg Mason officials said, the rent paid just won't cover the costs and the project won't get done.

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Hagerstown is a bit like Baltimore in that parts of its downtown are filled with large older buildings which can't be renovated (or even be torn down) without spending a lot of money. One factor in the council's decision to approve a renovation project for the Baldwin House - the old Routzahn's building - was that demolishing it would have cost $250,000 or more.

We have long felt that creating residential housing for middle and upper-income people was an essential part of downtown revitalization. People with money to spend will be the ones who support downtown businesses and act as the "eyes on the street" who press authorities to deal with issues like crime, rowdyism and trash removal.

We don't recommend Hagerstown officials rush into anything. However, they should stay in contact with their Baltimore counterparts, pay attention and learn where the potholes are on the road to revitalization.

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