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The Daily Record: Developer Says Fitzgerald Already Exceeding Hopes

July 20, 2010

Standing tall at the edge of the Jones Falls Expressway near Maryland Avenue, the ultra-modern angles of The Fitzgerald apartments seem an unlikely symbol to weld the future of Mount Vernon with a slice of its historic past rooted in the romance of the 1920s Jazz Age.

Yet that’s what the University of Baltimore is hoping to accomplish when the development named after writer F. Scott Fitzgerald fully opens later this summer.

“This project embraces the artistic nature of Baltimore,” said Jeff Kayce, of The Bozzuto Group and project manager for The Fitzgerald. “It’s the art. It’s the location. It all fits.”

With nearly half of its 275 rental units already leased in the $77 million development, The Fitzgerald has already exceeded the early expectations of the developer and its landlord, UB, both sides say. Already, the project is a local hub for students and residents after a 20,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble bookstore opened on the ground floor in mid-June.

Not bad for the property that a couple of years ago was a nondescript, flat-top parking lot, said Steve Cassard, UB vice president for facilities management and capital planning.

“We expect an extraordinarily diverse group of people from students, to young law students, professionals and older people who have sold their houses and want to rent to be moving in,” Cassard said of the LEED-certified building. “It is a contemporary, cutting-edge project.”

The project is a windfall for the university because it allows for a new, steady revenue stream at a time when many higher education institutions have been forced to cut back.

UB did not have to spend any money on The Fitzgerald project. The deal calls for the university to lease the property to Bozzuto for 75 years, with payment in the form of a 3 percent return of gross proceeds, estimated to be about $300,000 annually, Cassard said. The university will also receive 950 parking spaces in the new 1,245-space garage.

“It’s a business deal,” he said. “And we don’t have any obligations to them other than to stick to our 75-year ground rent lease. It was the right thing at the right time.”

Inside the apartment building, the studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments are getting final touches that include granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and balconies overlooking Mount Royal Avenue. The apartments come with a full-time concierge and lease for $1,114 to $2,292 a month, depending on size and location in the building. A swimming pool, “meditative garden,” in-house movie theatre and 25,000 square feet of retail space will add to the ambiance of the urban complex, located next to a light rail stop.

“We are promoting all of the amenities of midtown living,” Cassard said, adding the university has enhanced its role as Mount Vernon-Bolton Hill neighborhood promoter with the project’s birth.

“Many people, including empty-nesters who want to move into the city, are telling us they want to rent right now. Real estate for many is not guaranteed in this economy,” he said. “A lot of people are not certain of what their five-year plan is.”

UB administrators identified the 4.5-acre lot next to the light rail tracks, a former rail yard, in 2004 as a site for potential development. They put out a request for proposals and forged a public-private partnership with Bozzuto and Washington, D.C.-based Gould Property Group.

The project was launched in 2008, just as the stock market began to rock, Kayce said. Construction went ahead anyway, he said, “and thankfully — because this is one of the few big projects that got underway.”

Apartment rentals in Baltimore ebb and flow, and nowadays, leasing opportunities are scarce, said Bob Aydukovic, a real estate and development expert in Baltimore and owner of Downtown Development Advisors LLC.

“The rental market is tight, and few vacancies have hit the market this spring,” Aydukovic said. “That’s a pure function of the recession. The Fitzgerald offers a brand-new product, and it’s the only product of any size or scale in the area. That’s why there’s a high demand.”

Aydukovic said other condo projects in downtown Baltimore may convert to rentals because their price tags of $300,000 to $500,000 per unit are prohibitive under current market conditions.

“Generally, Baltimore is not a pre-leasing type of city,” he said, of the early rentals at The Fitzgerald. “But overall, it does not surprise me that they are doing as well as they are.”

Toby Bozzuto, president of Bozzuto, said The Fitzgerald project was designed to intersect with the rich cultural surroundings of Mount Royal Avenue, including the Maryland Institute College of Art. During last week’s Artscape festival, which drew crowds of thousands to the street in front of The Fitzgerald for three straight days, Bozzuto’s employees conducted hardhat tours of the development.

“We feel we have created a space which reminds us all that buildings are not just places to live, but rather communities in which to live life by interacting with others,” Bozzuto said. “Art was a factor in every decision we made, right down with filling the building with original pieces from local artists.”

When the development is completed, with retail, restaurants and tenants buzzing in and out of its contemporary glass-and-steel front doors each day, Bozzuto said he hopes a renewed commitment to urban apartment dwelling will open up.

He’s counting on some of the ghosts of Bolton Hill past – including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who briefly lived at 1307 Park Ave. — to help fuel that revival.

“It is our hope that The Fitzgerald represents the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, who together lived life with zest, passion and emotion just three blocks away,” Bozzuto said.