Baltimore—It’s hard to take in the odd geometry of the Railway Express Lofts. The building sits at the bottom of the old Jones Falls River Valley, squeezed in between a six-lane Interstate highway and a train line.
Twenty-two feet above the ground, the top half of Railway Express reaches up to the level of St. Paul Street, which passes over the valley like a bridge. The upper part of Railway Express is filled with 30 new lofts with a main entrance that opens onto the sidewalk.
Railway Express is a transit-oriented development: Baltimore’s Penn Station is right across St. Paul Street. It’s also a historic rehabilitation of a landmark parcel post station, built in 1929. And it’s pedestrian friendly. St. Paul is one of the city’s main streets, and Railway Express is on the northern edge of the Mount Vernon historic district, within walking distance of grocery stores, coffee shops, and entertainment like the Lyric Opera House and the Charles Theatre.
“The project works on many levels,” said Ed Hord, principal with local architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht, Inc., and a co-developer of Railway Express, LLC.
To rehabilitate the building, the developers found unique solutions to its unusual geometry, which includes an awkwardly large, 250-by-130-foot floor plate. More than half of the apartments are larger than 1,500 square feet and more than 60 feet long. The 17 feet of space from floor to ceiling is divided in the back of these lofts into two levels, with the top floor left open to receive light from the building’s big windows.
Also, the old parcel post building is raised to the level of St. Paul Street on concrete stilts, which needed to be tested for stability. It’s usually done by installing temporary tanks, filling them with water, and measuring any change of the columns. Instead, the confident developers had tons of drywall delivered to the building. The columns handled the weight well, and “at the end of the day we had drywall,” said Hord.
Twenty-two of the apartments are occupied and rent for an average of $1.38 per square foot per month, said Hord. On the lower level, 16 commercial spaces totaling 37,000 square feet are fully rented to small businesses for an average of $17.50 per square foot a year. The developers also fit 86 parking spaces on the lower level, for a total of 153 spaces. That’s more than enough for the Railway Express renters; the developers are leasing 41 additional spaces at $180 per month per space.
Railway Express had several layers of financing. The $19.7 million project took in $1.8 million from the sale of federal New Markets Tax Credits, $3.3 million from the sale of federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, and $2.5 million from the sale of state historic tax credits. The developers also put up $2 million of their own equity and took out a $6.5 million permanent mortgage.
The tax credits lowered the amount of debt the project needed to take on, but also committed the developers to nine-and-a-half months of construction. Railway Express opened in December.