Ritzy rooms with a view?

Inner Harbor: Architectural design is pivotal in determining height of luxury hotel at Federal Hill.

April 11, 1999

IT IS NO wonder the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain has set its sights on a shoreline parcel at the foot of Federal Hill. The view of the Inner Harbor is incredible, particularly at night.

Developer Neil Fisher has gone to unusual lengths in consulting neighbors about the 250-room hotel. And the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, despite deep divisions, has voted to consider a relaxation of height restrictions that have been in place since 1975. So far, so good.

Any serious discussion of height, though, is difficult without an architectural concept on the table. And if a height variance becomes necessary, it will have to be obtained from the city, not the neighborhood.

Mr. Fisher has had the good sense to hire Michael Graves & Associates to design the Ritz-Carlton. Mr. Graves, a Princeton University professor, is among America's most exciting designers, a man who has given his form not only to notable structures (the Portland Building in Oregon, the Newark Museum renovation in New Jersey, Walt Disney corporate headquarters in California and the company's Dolphin and Swan hotels in Florida) but also to teapots, furniture and silverware. "Graves blends classical allusions and whimsy," the Princeton Patron Magazine once wrote.

If Mr. Graves' firm lives up to this advance billing, it could design a building that complements the American Visionary Art Museum, a neighboring landmark.

Twenty-four years ago, when the city and Bethlehem Steel Corp. agreed to a 71-foot height limit for the site, that was in keeping with the size of the Propeller Yard building on Key Highway. This red-brick warehouse would be demolished under Mr. Fisher's proposal. In its place, two hotel wings would rise -- the tallest point would be about 112 feet.

After years of delays, construction has recently taken off along Key Highway. Residences are being built. The art museum is expanding. Vacant land is about to change.

The site that interests the Ritz-Carlton is among the Inner Harbor's few remaining choice parcels. If Mr. Fisher does not build there, someone else will, possibly with less regard for Federal Hill residents' wishes.

When the Graves blueprints are made public in the next few weeks, they should be viewed as an opportunity to enhance the harbor with a quality building. If the design shows imagination and respect for the overall context of the site, height restrictions should not be used to block Baltimore from getting another landmark.

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