Taxpayers turned out in force last night to fight the controversial Wyndham Inner Harbor East Hotel in the first Baltimore City Council hearing on the proposed $132.6 million building that would tower 48 stories above the waterfront.
More than 100 people packed council chambers for the five-hour hearing before the Urban and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, and testimony overwhelmingly weighed against the 750-room hotel, which would be financed with about $50 million in public subsidies.
Critics called the proposed aid a waste of public money. They charged that building the hotel, which would become the city's second-tallest building, would disregard years of developing a land-use master plan and destroy the low-slung character of the waterfront. They sharply questioned why the Schmoke administration would subsidize a hotel a mile away from the expanded Baltimore Convention Center.
Taxpayers -- dozens of whom sported little red-and-black badges that read "WHY PLAN?" -- repeatedly called on council members to reject the Schmoke administration's effort to overhaul the Inner Harbor East Urban Renewal Plan to allow for the hotel. They noted about $20 million already has been spent on improvements and that the plan, years in the making, limits building heights to 18 stories and hotels to a maximum of 350 rooms.
"Why did we pay for all this infrastructure before, and now we're supposed to pay again?" said Mary Roby, a Butchers Hill resident and member of the Southeast Community Organization. "The planning that happened for Inner Harbor East 10 years ago is being dismantled by politics. It's arrogant, and it's an outrage."
Roby brought a petition signed by more than 700 taxpayers titled "Stop the Wyndham Hotel." The petition called the urban renewal plan, designed by New York architect Stanton Eckstut, a "model of good urban design" that would be "destroyed" by the Wyndham.
"Furthermore," the petition said, "it would do so at great expense to the citizens of Baltimore and the state of Maryland and would seriously affect the chances for a successful Baltimore Convention Center."
But Michael Beatty, vice president for development for baking mogul John Paterakis' H&S Properties Inc., which proposed the hotel, defended the effort to scrap land-use restrictions on about 5 acres.
"We are on the verge of creating an absolutely world-class hotel in the city of Baltimore," Beatty told council members. "We need to do what's best for the city of Baltimore right now. Yes, we had a plan before, but now we have a better one. It was designed to be a flexible, market-driven master plan."
James Keat, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, bristled at that suggestion.
"Now, all of a sudden, it's going to be 'flexible' and 'market-driven'? That's one of the cutest euphemisms I've heard in a long time," said Keat, who has labored for months over an urban renewal plan for Federal Hill's business district.
"What's the point? What's all that work go for if somebody's going to come along with the right connections, and it all goes out the window?"
But Little Italy residents, among a handful of supporters, called the hotel a linchpin to linking downtown and communities east of the harbor, spreading development and creating jobs.
Gia Blatterman, a longtime Little Italy community leader, said the hotel would break the divide between the historic ethnic community and the Inner Harbor.
"We should be taken into consideration," she said. "It's time to look at our needs. We've been separated much too long. It's time to progress, not regress."
Last night's hearing occurred about a week after the mayor-controlled city planning commission unanimously backed the hotel, after a hearing in which opponents far outnumbered supporters.
In continuing to support the site, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has rejected recommendations of the staff of his economic development agency, the convention bureau, state legislators, the state treasurer, business leaders and hoteliers.
Pub Date: 11/07/97