Giving away the store Wyndham hotel: Two City Council bills would grant Paterakis team carte blanche.

November 23, 1997

SINCE IT WAS first proposed, the 750-room Inner Harbor East Wyndham hotel has grown from 27 stories to a nearly 50-story monster that would overshadow the waterfront south of Little Italy. Could it get even bigger?

It could be almost anything it wants.

If two controversial bills are enacted, the City Council would sign away its oversight authority. Then it would pretty much be up to the development team led by John Paterakis, a political donor to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and council members, to call the shots.

So far unscrutinized by the council and the public are final design plans and the hotel's financing package -- which all parties agree will include a heavy infusion of taxpayer dollars.

The $132.6 million Wyndham hotel has been the subject of heated community dispute. Mayor Schmoke contends it is needed to jump-start economic development and job creation on the eastern fringes of the Inner Harbor. But critics say the taxpayer-subsidized hotel is off the beaten track and unlikely to bolster lagging bookings at the underused but recently expanded Convention Center nearly a mile away.

Downtown Baltimore desperately needs new hotels. But professional meeting planners have been less than enthusiastic about the Inner Harbor East site and the hotel's chances of opening its doors by its 2000 target date.

Just last week, the American Association of Orthodontists, which wanted to bring its 2002 convention here, told officials the city's hotel situation was too chancy. The group's 16,000 delegates are going to Philadelphia instead.

As the Wyndham hotel's architectural design has evolved, so has its height. Some recent drawings suggest it could tower more than 500 feet over the harbor's edge, making it the city's second tallest building. Yet a law passed just seven years ago after lengthy community consultation restricts the height of any Inner Harbor East building to 180 feet -- or 18 stories.

The two City Council bills, drafted by the Schmoke administration, would scuttle those safeguards and let developers set their own maximum heights and densities. Bill 97-535 also effectively removes the council from any further role, ceding key oversight functions to planning agencies controlled by the mayor.

For example, planning bureaucrats would decide what constitutes a minor or major amendment or modification of the developers' plan. Any "minor" changes would only require the stamp of planning commission. The same would be true for design changes. The City Council would have a say only if planning officials branded a change "major."

A companion measure, Council Bill 97-539, would further weaken city oversight.

That bill says if there is "any conflict" with Inner Harbor East urban renewal regulations, "the standards and controls" of the developers' blueprint, "including, without limitation, those affecting use, parking, access, aesthetic controls, setbacks, specific lot controls and buildings heights, shall be controlling."

The Schmoke administration wants to rush the City Council into voting on these bills before its Christmas break starts Dec. 8. That would mean preliminary approval tomorrow.

Such hasty action would be unwise.

With no final design and no public finance package for the Wyndham hotel, council members must ask themselves why they are being pushed to give these developers carte blanche.

Unless the council wants to give away the store, members should delay action until they have all the pertinent answers.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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