How tall is too tall? When does bulky become too bulky? These are key questions right now for designers eager to win city approval to begin construction of the $134 million Wyndham hotel proposed for Baltimore's Inner Harbor shoreline.
Planned at one point to rise 48 stories -- which would have made it Baltimore's second tallest building -- the 750-room hotel has been criticized by community leaders for being too tall and completely out of scale with its surroundings.
So over the past year, in an effort to gain support, the architects have changed the design numerous times. The tower has been 27 stories high, 32, 44, 48, 41. It's gone from hulking and ponderous to sleek and glitzy, and back again.
Last week, the team unveiled a design that lowers the height to 31 stories or 350 feet -- well within a 430-foot height limit established late last year by the City Council. In its truncated state, the Wyndham tower may be more palatable to its opponents, less physically imposing and easier to finance. But making it shorter didn't automatically make it a better design. In some ways, it's taken a step backward.
This time, the hotel has a more solid and traditional appearance and, if anything, has become more of a visual companion to 100 HarborView Drive, the $100 million condominium tower off Key Highway. Together, the two towers would each rise about 350 feet and frame the entrance to the Inner Harbor basin like matching pillars in a maritime gateway.
It is important that the Wyndham tower design is developed with this relationship in mind, because comparisons will be unavoidable.
Planned by Baltimore businessman John Paterakis and his partners for construction at the northeast corner of East Falls Avenue and Aliceanna Street, the Wyndham hotel has been touted as a way to attract tourists and increase bookings for Baltimore's recently expanded Convention Center. Its architects are Cooper Carry Inc. of Atlanta and Beatty Harvey Fillat of Baltimore.
While some council members may claim credit for reducing the height of the hotel in response to community concerns, that's very much a matter of interpretation. A last-minute amendment to a council bill in December did, indeed, require developers to lower the tower's height from 505 feet to no more than 430 feet. But the previous height limit for the Inner Harbor parcel had been 180 feet. In effect, the council actually raised the height limit and allowed the developers to construct a building that is more than twice as tall as they could before.
The height reduction was significant enough, though, that it forced the architects to rethink their design. Because the developers need to provide 750 guest rooms and a minimum amount of meeting and ballroom space to satisfy the hotel operator, the architects couldn't simply slice seven or eight floors from the top.
At a news conference last week, the designers revealed their latest strategy: Instead of proposing a building with a nine-story base supporting a slender tower with 32 or more floors of guest rooms, they proposed a building with a five-story base supporting a less slender tower with 26 floors.
The designers were able to shrink the base mostly by putting the parking spaces in a separate garage one block to the east, connected to the hotel by a pedestrian skywalk. The nine-story garage would have two levels of retail space around the base, and parking for 600 cars. Designers further reduced the volume of the base by eliminating several planned restaurants and shifting at least one to the garage.
In the revised version, the first floor and mezzanine level of the base contain entrance lobbies and restaurants as well as the loading dock and service areas. Ballrooms, meeting rooms and a health club occupy the floors above. The main entrance is on the south side of the building. A secondary entrance for people coming by shuttle bus is on the east side, and the service entrance is on the north side. The height of the base is 80 feet, down from 120 feet before.
Besides lowering the building's base, the architects changed the shape and appearance of the tower. The new design no longer has a slender shaft rising from the base like a candle sticking out of a birthday cake. To stay within the height limit, the architects created an L-shaped tower, with one leg of the L running north-south to a height of 350 feet, and the second leg running east-west to a height of about 325 feet.
The revamped hotel also has become more solid in appearance, with a mixture of precast stone and glass on the exterior, rather than a mostly glass skin. This change in materials, more than anything, brings the Wyndham closer in feel to the HarborView tower.
"We think it's more of a Baltimore building now," said team member Michael Beatty. "It's going to fit with the buildings around it."