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SCENIC VIEWS, FROM ATOP A SILO

5.20.2006
The Washington Post

Imagine a grain elevator, once the biggest and fastest in the world, jutting 290 feet in the air. Sitting on a peninsula surrounded by working ships, yachts and sailboats. Right next door to a major historical site and across the harbor from a downtown marketplace.

Now imagine that elevator sheathed in glass and metal and converted into about 230 condominiums. Inside, a new lobby, with a restaurant, coffee shops and a front desk, rises 130 feet. It's the same height the main floor was when the elevator operated for some 70 years, carrying processed soybeans, corn and wheat from rail cars to surrounding storage silos and from the silos to oceangoing vessels.

Hard to picture?

Not for Baltimore developer Patrick Turner, who envisions a residential reincarnation of the boxy elevator building and silos used most recently by Archer Daniels Midland Co., one of the world's largest processors of soybeans, corn, wheat and cocoa.

Turner says he believes the one-of-a-kind venture will be hard to resist. "The views are incredible, it's right off I-95, and you're just a few minutes from downtown Baltimore."
He adds: "You can live in a historic condo anywhere in the world, but there is no other grain elevator in the world where you can live." (There is a converted Quaker Oats plant in Akron, Ohio, where you can sleep in a silo, dine in a mill and shop in a factory, but no reports of residential uses, according to a local architect contacted through the American Institute of Architects.)

The Baltimore complex, Silo Point, sits in Locust Point, a once- gritty blue-collar neighborhood next to historic Fort McHenry. It faces Baltimore's downtown, trendy Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor tourist complex on one side, the fort on another, and a brand-new city marine terminal and Interstate 95 to the south. A deteriorating terminal is across the train tracks from the complex on the harbor side, with abandoned piers and a rusting hospital ship, but Turner says the tracks are no longer used and the ship will soon be removed.
On a clear day, Turner says, "you can see the planes landing at BWI and the Loch Raven Reservoir" to the north about 20 miles.

Turner's company has started building and selling 121 townhouses nearby in partnership with Pulte Homes Inc., and is ginning up now to market Silo Point. In a recent interview, he gushed about the condo units in the elevator building itself -- he calls them "lofts in the sky" -- and about top floors with panoramic views. The project will also have condos wrapped around the elevator tower, a 550-car garage linked by a bridge to the tower, and two-level and three-level townhouses sitting atop the garage.

Silo Point is still a bit hard for visitors to comprehend initially, Turner says. But he's taken "hundreds of them" through the abandoned "lobby" and then up 130 feet in an old claustrophobic workers' elevator to the level where the tower condos will start. After visitors climb another four levels of open-tread stairs to get to the roof, he says, "pretty much everyone has the same comment, which is 'wow.' " For those afraid of heights, a warning: Don't look down if you have a chance to climb the steps. Also, the roof penthouses that don't exist yet are already spoken for: by Turner.

The lobby will feature the original octagonal columns that supported the elevator's concrete slab floors and its Rube Goldberg system of shafts and conveyor belts.

The condo units will have ceilings as high as 18 feet, some with floor-to-ceiling windows. Units near the top of the skyscraper will have windows on either side, with views for miles. No other building nearby approaches the 22-story height, and the zoning says no new buildings can be more than 35 feet tall.

Turner is planning to market heavily to the Washington crowd for three big reasons, he says: The I-95 ramp is only a couple of turns away; the prices will run from $399,000 up, which he says is reasonable for the "unique" views; and "it's probably the safest neighborhood here. There's only one way in and one way out."

Turner says Baltimore is in its "second or third generation" of revival, and he thinks it's primed for more. Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland medical school, which he points out from the rooftop during the tour, are growing continuously and drawing private industry.

It is a jolt, though, to see the thin, boxy concrete structure now, standing in a mud field, with its crown of corrugated metal and steel girders and its banks of broken windows, which start halfway up the building.

But the developer has a history of seeing the potential of places such as Federal Hill, where he got in early, and of converting former industrial sites to residential or mixed use. Turner is also involved in redeveloping a massive industrial area nearby called Westport, which would extend the transformation of Baltimore's waterfront from industrial to upscale mixed use. Like Fells Point and Canton, Locust Point has been the focus of concentrated public- private ventures. The result has been potent -- home prices of $600,000 are now considered normal.

Chris Pfaeffle, a principal with Parameter Inc. architects in Baltimore who specializes in "adaptive reuse" of industrial buildings, theaters and schools, has spent 21/2 years on the Silo Point design.

You can find Silo Point tucked behind a neighborhood of classic Formstone and brick rowhouses, renovated industrial buildings, still- operating factories, and a mix of old bars and new cafes.

The resurgence shows in for-sale signs and gutted townhouses busy with workmen behind plastic sheeting. A classic Domino Sugar sign sits high above the fray to one side, marking a factory that is still running, while the rejuvenated Phillips Foods Inc. headquarters dominates another corner.

The first glimpse of the elevator itself comes as one you turn a corner into a mostly residential neighborhood. The narrow building peeks up behind the houses.

Two groupings of concrete storage silos sit a short distance from the elevator, the only silos left from what had once been an assemblage of about 180.

Each grouping has eight. They're blackened -- not from soot or decay, but intentionally for protection against the elements, according to Turner. The two sets of silos were kept to anchor the 550-car garage as another reminder of the past. Pfaeffle plans to reinforce the "industrial aesthetic" with other touches, including landscaping with grasses or wheat. He also plans to build a mound of dirt on one side to show "the amount of grain that could be stored in one silo. It will be sort of like an obelisk in Rome."

The architect is repeating the scale of the design elements in the original building wherever possible. "The plant was built on a 16-foot-by-16-foot module," he says. "Every column, every silo is based on that scale. So we have carried that grid to the new construction to preserve the integrity of the project."

Turner bought the 15-acre site from Archer Daniels Midland in 2003 for $6.5 million, according to published reports, and says he expects to spend about $400 million on the transformation. The facility was built in the early 1920s as a transfer station for the B&O Railroad, then passed to two agricultural processing companies. It was shut down in March 2003 by ADM.

Turner says he pestered ADM to sell the elevator while it was still operating because he "could see the industry was changing" and that factories and transportation facilities were being moved from urban areas like Baltimore's. ADM finally agreed after deciding to close it, he says.

The site has been graded down to red mud and a couple of large concrete pads. Turner plans to build on those pads later. About 130,000 square feet of office space and 25,000 square feet of retail space are permitted by current zoning.

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