Baltimore's Planning Commission rejected yesterday a series of City Council bills that were drafted to allow developer Leonard Attman to buy a lane of Redwood Street so that he could construct a $90 million office tower at the southeast corner of Redwood and Charles streets.
The 5-to-2 vote to give the three council bills an "unfavorable report" marks the first time in more than a decade that the commission has rejected a private development plan knowing that its decision could result in the loss of such a large investment for downtown -- a high-rise building that would generate an estimated $2 million in annual property taxes.
It came after the commissioners heard more than three hours of testimony about the proposed Baltimore Financial Centre, mostly from owners of neighboring properties, downtown businessmen, architects and others who argued that the proposed building, even if it did help cut the tax rate, could do more harm that good.
Some opponents said they believed the proposed 25-story, 377,000-square foot building -- scaled down from a 32-story, 427,000-square-foot building -- was still too large for its site and would add to traffic congestion and parking problems in the area.
Others, including a local architect bearing a petition signed by 72 of his colleagues, warned that the city would be setting a bad precedent by selling any part of a city street to help a private developer expand his construction site, especially when downtown Baltimore already has many other vacant lots ready for development.
The commission apparently agreed.
"I was excited about the jobs they would create, but I think an unhealthy precedent is being set in selling the street," Commissioner Marie Berry said before the vote was taken.
"The building is unsuited to the location," said Commissioner Samuel Adams.
"I think it's going too far," Commissioner Samuel Hopkins agreed. "We have to take into account not only what we can do for newcomers but also how our actions affect people who are already here."
Ira Cooke, an attorney for owners of the Legg Mason Building at 7 E. Redwood St., a group that opposed the project, was elated. "We're just very pleased with the vote of the Planning Commission and we're looking forward to working with the developer on improving the corner with an appropriate project," he said.
"We're happy to hear that the city is retaining its streets," said David Benn, a member of the Urban Design Committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which opposed the project.
"It's clear that Redwood Street is one of the nicest streets we have in Baltimore, and it needs to be protected. We're very happy that the Planning Commission sees it that way."
"For a change, we're starting to think about the quality of the city as a whole and not just the revenues we're getting from an individual building," agreed architect Patrick Sutton.
H. Russell Frisby, Jr., an attorney for Mr. Attman, declined to comment after the vote. Mr. Attman, who did not address the commission but waited just outside the room where it was meeting, could not be reached immediately after the meeting.
According to city officials, the developer still could proceed with his project if, despite the Planning Commission's unfavorable report, the City Council passes the bills and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signs them into law. However, council members rarely pass development-related bills that have not received Planning Commission approval.
The earliest that the council's urban affairs committee could consider the project is next fall, when the council reconvenes, but no date has been set.
City officials say another option for the Attman group would be to withdraw the pending bills and come up with a revised plan that does not involve selling a city street.
Representatives for several groups that spoke against the project yesterday said that they would not necessarily oppose a building that does not encroach on Redwood Street and contains no more than 175,000 square feet of space -- about half the size of the current proposal.
Mr. Frisby said before the vote that he suspects part of the reason for the opposition from owners of neighboring office buildings is that they fear the new project would be competition for them.
"All we're asking for is a fair playing field," he said. "The competition should not be allowed to hold this project hostage."
But Mr. Cooke said, "I submit that they want to change the boundaries of the playing field, so they can play their game to the detriment of the citizens of Baltimore."