City vote on hotel is opposed Assembly leaders object to referendum on Wyndham subsidy

January 13, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Key leaders of the General Assembly said yesterday that they would not support a bill that could block construction of the 41-story Wyndham Inner Harbor East hotel, a project that has been criticized because it would require more than $40 million in public subsidies.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday that they would not support legislation that would force the city to win voter approval before spending public money on the controversial $132 million project.

"I do not support government by referendum," Miller said. "People elect representatives to make both the tough decisions and the easy decisions. Whether this decision is good, bad or indifferent, it should be decided by elected officials."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Perry Sfikas, both Baltimore Democrats, have drafted legislation that would change the City Charter to require a referendum if, before the 1998 general election, a public subsidy of more than $5 million is used to construct any hotel in Baltimore.

Baking magnate John Paterakis Sr., developer of the proposed Wyndham, is seeking $40 million to $50 million in public subsidies. His development team, headed by Michael S. Beatty, has repeatedly said it plans to break ground on the hotel in March.

"We have followed the process outlined by the city of Baltimore, and we will continue to follow that process to develop what we think is a very exciting and beneficial project for the city," Beatty said. "Unfortunately, politics seems to be overshadowing all of that."

Support for bill

The Rawlings-Sfikas bill has broad support in the historic waterfront communities that would lie in the shadow of the Wyndham, but it might face a tough battle in the General Assembly -- despite support from the head of the Republican caucus and 46th District Dels. Cornell N. Dypski, Carolyn J. Krysiak and Peter A. Hammen, all Democrats.

In speeches to the Greater Baltimore Committee yesterday, Taylor and Miller said the state should not involve itself in Baltimore zoning matters.

In approving the Wyndham hotel project, the City Council amended the urban renewal ordinance for Inner Harbor East, which banned any structure on the waterfront taller than 180 feet. The Wyndham would be 41 stories, making it the second tallest building in Baltimore. Developers had originally proposed a 48-story tower.

The council's action outraged community groups, who filed a lawsuit two weeks ago, claiming the city failed to follow state law when the project was reviewed by the council. Several residents also appealed to Rawlings and Sfikas for help.

"Ideally, the state should not have to involve itself in local issues, but I feel it's appropriate in this situation because the city has messed up so badly," said Carolyn Boittnott, a founding member of the Waterfront Coalition. "There needs to be some way to correct the error made by city government. Perhaps this is one way to do it."

The bill has the support of Del. Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County, head of the 41-member Republican caucus. The House has 141 delegates.

"We're all for it," Kittleman said of the caucus' position on the bill. "We will support any measure that would help us protect our investment in the Convention Center."

The state contributed $150 million to the expansion of the downtown meeting facility. In an effort to protect that investment, Kittleman said the Republican caucus took a position this summer against building a hotel at Inner Harbor East, if that precluded another hotel from being built next to the Convention Center.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos wants to build an 850-room Grand Hyatt hotel on two city-owned parcels west of the Convention Center. City officials are reviewing bids for the property and expect to reach a decision on developing those sites by the end of the month, according to city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

"Our hope clearly is to build a couple of hotels downtown," said Henson, who opposes the referendum. "I don't think it is a wise thing to negotiate economic development deals in public."

Henson and other city officials opposed to the referendum noted that Harborplace and Charles Center -- both controversial projects when they were proposed -- were developed without approval by city voters.

"Getting investment in this city is already difficult," said 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley, who has said he will withhold support for the Wyndham if construction needs to be publicly subsidized. "We should be trying to encourage more development in this city, rather than creating more roadblocks. This legislation would hamper our ability to do that."

Mayor's view

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke also expressed concern about the impact the proposed legislation would have on future economic development in Baltimore.

"I'm very much opposed to the bill and will continue to fight it," FTC said Schmoke, who has lobbied in Annapolis for the Wyndham. "I think legislation like this takes jobs from people and hurts our ability to create jobs in the future."

The City Council must take up the hotel issue again, possibly when it reconvenes Jan. 26. O'Malley, chair of the Taxation and Finance Committee, has threatened to stall the legislation in the committee if the financing package for the Wyndham includes any city loans, grants or parking revenue bonds.

Pub Date: 1/13/98

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