Rush-job on the Wyndham Proposed hotel: City Council action obligates taxpayers to pay for costly construction.

December 08, 1997

EVEN THOUGH two partial City Council approvals of the Inner Harbor East Wyndham Hotel are at least a week away, the Schmoke administration has already spent over $100,000 on engineering plans to accommodate the hotel that will require substantial further taxpayer expenditures.

Indeed, the first blueprints by Rummel, Klepper & Kahl were dated Sept.22 -- two weeks before the City Council bills were even introduced. Public Works officials sought no authorization from the Board of Estimates.

Relocation of a 60-inch sewer main, at taxpayers' cost, is specifically mandated in a July 18 agreement with the Wyndham's developers, headed by bakery mogul John Paterakis, a financial contributor to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the council.

"There was this possibility of a hotel going there. I made the decision: Let's move the pipe regardless of what happens because it will free the property up and make it more desirable for development," Public Works Director George Balog acknowledged. He said that since the old pipe is clogged, "When you get right to it, we are saving taxpayers money."

This unusual rush-job indicates how badly Mayor Schmoke wants the controversial 41-story skyscraper hotel built on water's edge south of Little Italy, even though a financing package for the $132.6 million project is still incomplete and not expected to reach the City Council until February.

Council members were aware of this premature work. But they chose not to discuss the expenditure last week when Councilman John Cain brought it up. Instead, a majority of the 18 members present tentatively approved a sweeping bill that would allow the Paterakis developers to build a hotel nearly three times as tall as currently permitted on the site. Dissenting, in addition to Mr. Cain, were Council members Helen L. Holton and Stephanie Rawlings. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. abstained.

We hail the courage of those council members. And we urge the rest of the council to postpone a final vote scheduled for Dec. 15.

Passage of Council Bill 97-539, and of Bill 97-535, which is due for preliminary approval today, would be irresponsible. The council has simply not done its due diligence.

Last week's council action underscores this failure to weigh the consequences.

Consider the 430-foot height limit on the Wyndham tentatively authorized by the council. Such a mass would nearly quadruple the pressure on a Jones Falls bulkhead paid for by city taxpayers just a few years ago. It was designed to withstand structures with a maximum height of 120 feet.

Who would pay for a costly reinforcing of the bulkhead?

The answer is not clear. The July contract between the city and the developers suggests that could be the taxpayers' responsibility.

In contrast, there is no lack of clarity on the city's responsibility to undertake costly additional infrastructure work at the Wyndham site, although taxpayers spent at least $21 million to enhance Mr. Paterakis' property just a few years ago, building bulkheads, a marina, parks and promenade.

The rushed engineering work is connected with the hotel: Under the July contract, the city is obligated to remove a 60-inch sewer (because it would be under the hotel's parking deck) and build a new 64-inch sewer line. According to blueprints obtained by The Sun, this work is extensive, requiring relocation and reconstruction of streets taxpayers paid for just a few years ago to accommodate Mr. Paterakis' plans at the time. Pilings, with a bearing capacity of 25 tons, also will be necessary.

Mr. Balog estimated the cost at $500,000. Other sources suggested changes that have to be paid for by the city could run into the millions of dollars.

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III has acknowledged that in considering approval of the Wyndham Hotel without full financial details, he and his colleagues are putting the "cart before the horse." Responsible legislators would not act that way. They would want to know what they are getting taxpayers into.

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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