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Urbanite: The Missing Piece -- The Fitzgerald Sets Out to Close a Gap in the City's Urban Fabric

April 29, 2011

Given all the hurdles that had to be cleared, it is a wonder the $78 million mixed-use development called the Fitzgerald was built at all.

From the outset, the building—which takes its name from F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, who once lived nearby—proved to be a daunting undertaking. The University of Baltimore wanted to transform a Midtown parking lot into a place that both generated income for the university and "contributed to the economic revitalization of the city," says Steve Cassard, the university's vice president of facilities management and capital planning. If it worked, the structure would close a gap in the urban fabric, connecting the neighborhoods of Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon. But that was a big "if."

The university solicited ideas from three developers, and in 2005, selected the Bozzuto Group's proposal to build and manage a complex of apartments, retail, and a large parking garage. The developer managed to pull together the necessary funding, with assistance from former Baltimore Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary, among others—but the deal nearly fell through when the economy tanked. "We closed the deal in September 2008, the week that Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy," recalls Jeff Kayce, Bozzuto's development manager. "The project might not have happened if we had waited any longer."

The troubles didn't end there. Before construction could begin, the 4.6-acre site, once home to a tire-treading plant and a rail yard, had to be emptied of industrial waste. At the same time, the plan faced scrutiny from not only the usual city agencies and neighborhood groups, but also from the board of regents governing Maryland's university system. If that wasn't enough, the site presented numerous design challenges for the architects, a team from the local firm Design Collective. The irregularly shaped parcel lies adjacent to a light rail line and Interstate 83, and between the angular, glass façade of the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center and more traditional brick and stone buildings of Mount Vernon. Numerous functional demands, including the parking, retail, apartments, and a swimming pool, also challenged the architects' ability to find a coherent design solution. To help design the collective, Bozzuto engaged Baltimore architect Steve Ziger of Ziger/Snead, the firm responsible for the Brown Center, to collaborate on the design of the building's massing and exterior.

Fortunately for everyone, the stakeholders proved to be adventurous. "We were pleasantly surprised by how the university, community, and developer were so open to contemporary design," says Design Collective partner Rich Burns. "They wanted us to think outside the box."

Taking its architectural cues from the location, Design Collective set the 275 apartments into a u-shaped block with a wing in the middle to create two internal courtyards. The shape of the building follows the geometries of two street grids that come together at the intersection of Oliver Street and Mount Royal Avenue. Storefronts (now occupied by a Barnes & Noble, a Starbucks, and coming soon, a Two Boots pizza restaurant) extend next to the sidewalks to attract foot traffic. To mark the entrance to the apartments, the architects split open the structure, nestling the front door between the two splayed wings. The gap is spanned by a glass bridge with views of the clock tower rising from the historic Mount Royal train station to the southwest.

"The forms and the massing are slightly skewed to evoke something exploding and moving," says Burns. "We didn't want the architecture to be static because the site isn't static. We wanted to celebrate the movement of the pedestrians, vehicles, and light rail around the site."

Inside the block, the two courtyards house the swimming pool and an outdoor fireplace. Residents have access to amenities such as a movie theater, a fitness area, a bar, a billiards table, and a business center. The apartment market is still recovering from the recession, but 85 percent of the units are already leased at monthly rents ranging from $1,415 for a 569-square-foot efficiency to $2,595 for a 1,411-square-foot unit with two bedrooms and a den. "The residents range from graduate students to young professionals, D.C. commuters, and empty nesters," says Kayce.

The Fitzgerald is also one of the greenest residential buildings in the city, designed to achieve a LEED Silver rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. The building was constructed with local and recycled materials, and 70 percent of its electricity is purchased from renewable sources. Apartments are outfitted with Energy Star appliances and low-flow plumbing fixtures. And in March, Bozzuto opened two electric vehicle charging stations in the parking garage abutting the apartments at the rear of the property.

That parking garage is the only part of the project that disappoints in terms of design. The architects made an effort to disguise its bulk by wrapping one side with apartments, but much of its bland, concrete shell looms above Interstate 83. Drivers on the highway deserve a better view—at least more of the articulated architecture evident along the streets. Still, the garage provides a convenient spot for the university and community to park hundreds of cars, even though the light rail stop and Penn Station are within an easy walk of the artfully designed front door.