Council approves bills for hotel Angry outbursts greet quick OK of Wyndham measures

December 16, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Final approval of the controversial Wyndham Hotel legislation was pushed through the City Council last night by President Lawrence A. Bell III, prompting angry outbursts from critics, who were escorted from the council chambers by police, and criticism from council members whom Bell barred from speaking.

Bell instructed the police officer assigned to council duty to remove catcallers in the audience, who shouted "Farce!" and "Crooks!" when he read aloud approval of the two bills that would allow construction of the 41-story hotel in Inner Harbor East.

As he was reading, Bell ignored Councilman John L. Cain, an opponent of the hotel, who sought postponement of the final vote.

Bell's unusually swift reading of the bills left just seconds for dissenting council members to vote in opposition, but none did. So technically, the 19-member council voted unanimously for the two bills, even though at least three council members said they opposed them.

"It felt like a freight train coming through, and there was no time to do anything," said West Baltimore Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who wanted to be recorded as abstaining. "These are some of the moments that I'm ashamed of being an elected official. [Bell's] action made a lot more people feel cynical about us."

Bell said he was not doing anything differently from previous council meetings and that he was trying to prevent grandstanding from council members and the public.

Steve Bunker, president of the the Fells Point Community Organization, registered his displeasure by screaming "Farce!"

"For those of us who have made a commitment to the city, we don't want the council to change the rules halfway through the game," Bunker said.

To allow the Wyndham Hotel, the council had to amend city law that would have prevented construction of the proposed building. Residents wanted a much smaller hotel. Council members worked out a compromise calling for a 41-story hotel instead of one with 48 floors.

Several people in the audience who belong to a coalition of waterfront neighborhoods that oppose the hotel, wore tags that called for tabling the legislation.

Their representative, Cain, made a motion to table the legislation but Bell refused to recognize him.

"Nobody called a second to his motion," Bell explained after the meeting. "If they had, I would have had to stop."

When the hotel legislation was before the council for preliminary approval two weeks ago, all members had an opportunity to speak to the issue. Cain and West Baltimore Councilwomen Stephanie Rawlings and Helen Holton said then that they were against the $132 million project.

Despite yesterday's acrimony, the real fighting may still be ahead.

The council's approval of the legislation sets the stage for the next, and some say most difficult, step in erecting the hotel -- the financial package.

When the council returns from holiday recess on Jan. 26, it is expected to receive Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposal that would outline how much public money would go into paying for the hotel.

Hotel developers, led by local bakery executive John Paterakis Sr., told the city in July that they would need about $50 million in public subsidies.

That amount could change, hotel officials say, because the financial package is still being negotiated.

"We're trying to put the pieces of the financing package together," said Don Trice, president of Stormont Trice Corp.

Schmoke, who wants the hotel built by 2000, is concerned that the council might try to defeat the public-subsidy portion of the financial package.

Some key members of the council, including Bell and Martin O'Malley, who chairs the Finance Committee, which will scrutinize the mayor's proposal, said they will withhold support for the hotel if construction needs to be subsidized with city loans, grants or parking revenue bonds.

The mayor has said he does not see how a financial package can be completed without parking revenue bonds.

Whether a hotel will be erected in the city will come down to what happens in the next few months.

If Schmoke proposes a financial package that meets some of the council members' requirements, then it is nearly certain that Baltimore will have a new Wyndham.

If the mayor's financial package falls short of some of the council's requirements, a fight could ensue, and sides would have to be taken.

"If it comes to that point, there could be a battle. It could be contentious," Bell said.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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