If you look around Baltimore, Maryland, the first thing you’ll notice is a lot of former factories that have been rehabbed into luxury apartments and trendy restaurants, modern versions of the city’s iconic row houses and space that was created for the cutting edge of e-commerce and marketing.
At the center of all this brick and mortar is a man who thinks outside the box. It happens that Union Box is the name of his umbrella company, a box plant, and the man is Larry Silverstein.
Now that he has transformed a hefty chunk of Baltimore, including an important section on the waterfront, he’s casting his net wider. Union Box has purchased Pontiac Mills on the Pawtuxet River at the corner of Greenwich Avenue (Rt. 5) and Knight Street. Founded by brothers Benjamin Brayton and Robert Knight (BB&R Knight), developers of Fruit of the Loom (www.fruit.com) products, in its glory days the mill employed thousands of immigrants.
That should appeal to Silverstein, who has built or re-purposed parking lots and old manufacturing plants on the edges of Little Italy and the Polish community.
He has not yet submitted any permits for approval to the planning department, said Trish Reynolds, senior planner, but in a meeting with members of the Pontiac Village Association, Silverstein reportedly indicated he will follow a version of his Baltimore template: restaurants, a mix of retail and commercial space on the lower floors and upscale apartments on the top floors.
Like many of Warwick’s former mills, Pontiac sprawls over 320,000 square feet of space containing 23 buildings, some of them crumbling. Silverstein has apparently said he plans to save as many of the structures as possible.
Repeated calls from the Beacon seeking comment from Union Box were not returned.
The mill has changed hands approximately six times since the Knights closed the place, according to records in the tax assessor’s office. The most recent owner was H. Hampton Hodges, a Texas speculator. Silverstein bought it from him in October, paying $1 million.
In recent years attempts to make a success of the mill have not met with much success. An exception was the NYLO Hotel, which opened its doors with a boutique-chic style in 2008, complete with a wrap-around deck for summer dining. After suffering damages in the 2010 flood, which saw waters rise nearly to the top of its plate glass front doors, the hotel closed for a year for rehab.
A glimpse of Silverstein’s Baltimore developments offers insight into the kind of projects that pique his interest and the way he approaches giving them new life.
The Union Box Building
The residences at Union Box are the centerpiece of Silverstein’s operation. They’re part of a 45,000-square-foot property in the Fells Point area of Baltimore, one block from the waterfront, where residents enjoy all the amenities.
Residents can take water taxis to a variety of shopping and dining opportunities. Union Box includes 10 apartments, one townhouse, a rooftop deck and a central courtyard.
Merchant Point and Merchant Square
Silverstein’s role as a visionary included creating a life-size game of Monopoly. He built a development called Merchant Point and then, six blocks away, built one just like it on the site of a parking lot for the former Obrycki’s Restaurant.
The parking lot plans included 17 new row houses in Upper Fells Point to be called Merchant Square.
St. Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church
When plans with a previous developer fell through, the Franciscan Brothers offered the church in Fells Church, closed for 10 years, again. Silverstein stepped in and bought it for $850,000. When he put it on the market and it didn’t attract any offers he said he might transform it into apartments or offices. His company had already received approval to start building 20 townhouses on the site. The church had landmark status and could not be razed.
It eventually became Sanctuary Bodyworks, one in a chain of boutique fitness centers whose website displayed pictures of gym equipments under the stained glass windows.
The Canton Montessori School was housed in another church building.
Holland Tack Factory and the Canal Street Malt House
The tack factory was once a hospital for wounded Confederate soldiers and then was the last major manufacturer of tacks and nails. Silverstein repurposed it into two restaurants, a 12-lane bowling alley, a salon and a scooter shop. He sold the property for $6.5 million.
The Malt House offered 38 luxury condominiums selling for between $499,000 and $1 million. Many were sold before work was completed.
Fallsway Spring & Equipment Company
This was the new home of Groove Commerce of Baltimore, which pledged to pay between $300,000 and $400,000 toward renovation of the former manufacturing site with the rest of the projected $1 million underwritten by Union Box.
Silverstein paid $750,000 for the property, an apparent pattern. He keeps his purchase price to $1 million or under, renovates the space and leases it, then starts looking for “someone to buy it almost immediately,” he once said in an interview.