Pier 5 hotel and Columbus Center called 'good fit'


December 30, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

It's too bad the city of Baltimore couldn't have arranged to buy the Harrison's Pier 5 hotel and restaurant complex three years ago, instead of last week.

Had city officials gained control earlier, then they may have been able to offer more planning options to designers of the $160 million Columbus Center under construction on the north end of Piers 5 and 6.

If the four-story inn at the tip of Pier 5 could have been razed or incorporated in the design of the Columbus Center, for example, the marine research and exhibition complex might have had a stronger presence on the Inner Harbor.

As it is, the architects of Columbus Center have had to settle for frontage on the inlets between Piers 4 and 5 and between Piers 5 and 6 -- and a less prominent location on the city skyline than Harrison's has.

But even if the 71-room inn blocks harbor views to and from Columbus Center, the marine research facility is likely to be good for the inn, which the city agreed last week to acquire at a cost to taxpayers of $5.25 million.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said after the Board of Estimates approved the transaction that he believes the property's value will increase greatly once the Columbus Center opens in 1995, along with new roads leading to and from the piers. An exhibition area is expected to draw 400,000 visitors a year while upper-level laboratories will provide research space for marine biotechnology and related fields.

"Columbus Center is probably going to need a facility like that, with all of its scientists coming in and needing private meeting rooms and places to stay," the mayor said. "It's a good fit. . . . There are no plans to tear the building down."

The Schmoke administration moved to acquire the inn after the previous owners ran into financial difficulty, and the city will take possession by the end of January. Mr. Schmoke said the city will set up a nonprofit corporation to temporarily run the hotel and restaurant and will attempt to sell it in 1995.

"It will be a much more valuable property when the roads are open and Columbus Center is humming along," the mayor said. "If we put it out for bids now, we would probably only get bargain-basement prices."

Neighbors of Harrison's Pier 5 say they are concerned about the building's fate but do not necessarily have an interest in buying it.

Stanley Heuisler, president of the nonprofit group building Columbus Center, said his main goal is to complete construction of that project and raise all the funds needed to pay for it. He said any effort by his organization to pursue another property at this point could send a confusing message to those who have provided funds.

Mr. Heuisler added that Columbus Center was designed with limited dining and conference facilities because planners knew Harrison's was nearby. But he said he could not rule out the possibility that Columbus Center's board may be interested in acquiring the inn later.

For now, he said, he agrees with Mr. Schmoke that Columbus Center will generate a lot of business for the inn and restaurant. "We've tried to help them as much as possible, and we'll continue to do so. We're all in this together," Mr. Heuisler said.

Nicholas Brown, executive director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore on Piers 3 and 4, said his operation has no plans to expand to Pier 5. But he said he would like to see the Chart House restaurant, which leases space in a city-owned building on Pier 4, move to the Harrison's space, so the aquarium could take over the Chart House building.

Roger Blottenberger, manager of the Chart House, said he is unaware of any plans by his company to pursue Harrison's. But he admitted it would be a "great situation" for the Chart House, which has been on Pier 4 since 1979. "It's a beautiful piece of property," he said of the Pier 5 site. "It has a lot of potential."

Mr. Blottenberger added, however, that he believes a prudent operator would want to take over the inn and restaurant long before the Columbus Center opens.

"You need at least six or seven months just to get the restaurant back up to snuff, especially if anyone is going to remodel," he said. "If anyone tries to go in right as the Columbus Center opens, forget it."

Landscape program a first for Morgan

The graduate program in Landscape Architecture at Morgan State University has been awarded a three-year accreditation from the national Landscape Architecture Accreditation Board. The action gives Morgan State the first and only accredited graduate program in landscape architecture in Maryland.

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