Mayor bars taller Ritz beside hill

Fla. developer Fisher `shocked but not going to walk away'

71-foot height limit upheld

Schmoke urges talks to redesign luxury hotel at Federal Hill

Economic development

June 29, 1999|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will not lift height restrictions governing construction near historic Federal Hill, a move that represents a significant setback and potentially dooms a Ritz-Carlton Hotel planned there.

"I have concluded that no persuasive arguments have been made for recommending to the City Council that they remove current height restrictions affecting construction on the Federal Hill side of the Inner Harbor," Schmoke said, through spokesman Clinton Coleman.

"I am urging that [the city's planning and economic development agencies] work with proponents of the Ritz-Carlton to develop a design that will fit within the existing height limitations," the mayor added.

Schmoke's comments about commercial development south of the Inner Harbor came after a tour last week of the historic hill, which offers views of the waterfront and city skyline.

The mayor's decision to uphold height restrictions that limit construction to 71 feet on a tract adjacent to the Rusty Scupper restaurant means that a planned $100 million luxury hotel and condominium project may be delayed or postponed indefinitely.

A Florida developer asked city planners to waive the restrictions so that he could build a 250-room Ritz-Carlton, 50 luxury condominiums and a five-story office building.

Developer Neil Fisher told city officials he would like to construct a 26-story tower on the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. Propeller Yard site, a structure that would rise 270 feet. By comparison, Federal Hill is 82 feet high. The height limitations have been in place since the mid-1970s.

Last month, the city's Design Advisory Panel tentatively endorsed Fisher's single-tower design, contending that it was the least intrusive plan "from an urban design point of view."

Fisher said he is both "shocked" and "disappointed" with Schmoke's decision. He had hoped to break ground on the hotel by the end of this year.

"The die is cast and the mayor has spoken. I'm extremely disappointed, because I and my partners believed we were bringing a signature project to Baltimore," Fisher said. "But we're not going to walk away.

"I don't know if I can make a Ritz-Carlton work economically if it's spread out, because this is not a resort area where such a design would work. Now I have to go back to my partners and the architect and Ritz and see if I can persuade them to accept a massive design that will block a good portion of Key Highway."

The land in question is occupied by a vacant, six-story brick warehouse.

Fisher could decide to wait and see if Baltimore's next mayor is more sympathetic to lifting the height limitations, or wait until June 2007, when the current limitations expire.

South Baltimore residents opposed to granting Fisher an exemption to the restrictions applauded the mayor's move.

"I and everyone else in the area want to see a Ritz-Carlton come here," said Dick Leitch, president-elect of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, whose members have been split on whether to support lifting the height restrictions for the hotel.

"The problem with this particular project is the developer wants to do too much," Leitch added. "It's not just a hotel: It's condos and offices, too. I think when you weigh the project against the views from Federal Hill, there's a strong argument that the hill is important to all the residents of the city, and you can't ignore that."

Fisher's original proposal for the Ritz-Carlton, which came in February, called for a squat, three-building design. He removed that proposal from consideration after some residents objected to the mass of the project.

The developer later said the three-building plan was pulled because it failed to meet Ritz-Carlton's criteria for service corridors and other amenities. Fisher also acknowledged that he preferred a single tall, slender tower because it would be less expensive to build and maintain.

Despite the setback, Fisher vowed to continue to push for the Ritz-Carlton.

"I'm still not discouraged," Fisher said, adding he would confer with architect Michael Graves & Associates and work on a redesign of the project. "Baltimore is a great city and it deserves a Ritz-Carlton."

But he did not rule out the possibility that plans for the Ritz-Carlton would die, either.

"Maybe I have to rethink the hotel," Fisher said. "I thought this would be relatively easy, because I have never before had neighborhood or political opposition to a Ritz-Carlton. It looks like I've been temporarily beaten I'm getting caught in a political chess game."

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