Who should profit from hotel? Inner Harbor East: Unless City Hall protects taxpayer interests, Baltimore's waterfront ambiance will be marred.

October 12, 1997

LESS THAN a year ago, when bakery mogul John Paterakis first proposed a taxpayer-subsidized hotel on the waterfront south of Little Italy, he envisioned a 32-story high-rise.

By this June, he was talking 44 stories.

Now, Mr. Paterakis' architects have unveiled sketches that suggest a 50-story skyscraper. Such a hulk would rise 500 feet above the harbor's edge, making it the city's second tallest building. (The 520-foot Legg Mason Tower, at Pratt and Charles streets, is the tallest.)

There's a problem, though. City zoning law restricts any building on the Paterakis site to 180 feet -- or 18 stories.

That's why Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the champion of Mr. Paterakis' $133 million Wyndham hotel who wants city taxpayers to be a major financier, is asking that the height restrictions be lifted. The City Council is to hold hearings on the request next month and act before Christmas.

We oppose lifting the height limits and other design restrictions. Such changes would wreck the Inner Harbor East master plan that was carefully crafted a decade ago to assure the public access to the waterfront, including unobstructed vistas, and the harmonious development of Baltimore's shoreline from the mouth of the Jones Falls to Fells Point and Canton.

The changes would create a monstrous skyscraper that would dwarf everything around it. It would benefit Mr. Paterakis and his investment partners, but at the expense of Baltimore taxpayers.

Already, Mr. Paterakis has piled one sweetheart deal upon another -- even before some $51 million in public subsidies Mayor Schmoke is now proposing for the mega-hotel.

Just a few years ago, Baltimore taxpayers paid more than $21 million to construct streets, utilities, bulkheads and a marina for what then was Mr. Paterakis' blueprint for height-restricted housing, offices and shops.

Now that he has changed his plans, much of that infrastructure work would have to be dug up. The Department of Public Works is laboring feverishly on changes that would close a public street along the riverfront so as to give more privacy to hotel guests. Several other streets within the Inner Harbor East parcel would also be blocked or relocated to accommodate the mammoth hotel.

And who would pay the millions in costs?

Baltimore taxpayers, of course.

''It is agreed that all conveyances and transfers necessary to complete the reconfiguration and resubdivision. . . . shall be for no consideration,'' says a land disposition agreement between the city and the Paterakis interests.

Meanwhile, each floor that Mr. Paterakis is allowed to build beyond the original 180-foot height limit will increase the value of the parcel he bought at fire-sale prices 11 years ago. Mr. Paterakis, a generous contributor to Democratic politicians, including Mayor Schmoke and many City Council members, will reap the benefits. The taxpayers of Baltimore will make no commensurate profit.

In 1989, the city took cash from developers to permit a 26-story addition to the IBM Building on Pratt Street, even though it exceeded height guidelines. Standards were also altered so that a bigger structure could occupy the Light Street site of the McCormick & Co. Building. (The cherished Inner Harbor landmark was demolished, but nothing so far has been built in its place).

Those concessions by the Schmoke administration started the city down the slippery slope of design compromises that now endanger the harbor's design integrity. As give and take has replaced strict standards, investors have become greedy, asking more and more from the city.

Mr. Paterakis wants it all -- huge taxpayer subsidies as well as architectural carte blanche. This represents a tragic change of heart for the bakery mogul, who in 1988 boasted of having rejected overtures by Donald Trump to take charge of the Inner Harbor East development.

In an interview at the time, Mr. Paterakis said he rebuffed Mr. Trump because the New Yorker was not willing to live with the scale of the area's master plan but ''wanted to put up 30 to 40 stories -- skyscrapers.''

That sort of skyscraper is as inappropriate for Inner Harbor East now as it was a decade ago.

Aesthetically, any major building on the site is a sensitive proposition. It has to meld with the architectural totality of downtown. But it also has to fit the current and future proportions of Fells Point buildings. The Paterakis skyscraper hotel would stick out like a sore thumb.

Also at issue is the scrapping of a carefully coordinated planning process that so far has aimed to preserve the scale of the shoreline buildings.

Years ago, the Paterakis interests issued color brochures that praised the city's strict design standards at the Inner Harbor East site. At the time, those standards were hailed as a guarantee that the development would attract quality tenants and be a benefit for Baltimore.

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