Hotel building binge begins in Baltimore

Needed rooms: Baltimore will finally get them, but still lacks convention headquarters hotel.

August 09, 1999

WRECKING czar Buzz Berg has begun dismantling the Southern Hotel, a long-vacant 1914 landmark at Light and Baltimore streets. A $120 million, 35-story skyscraper, with a 267-room Embassy Suites hotel, office and retail space, will rise in its place.

Mr. Berg's appearance marks a significant step forward in developer J. Joseph Clarke's dream for the site in the heart of the financial district, just steps from the Inner Harbor and the Charles Center Metro station.

Across the street at Light and Redwood, Bethesda-based developer Donald J. Urgo wants to demolish two old bank and insurance buildings to make room for a 125-room Marriott Residence Inn extended-stay hotel.

In recent years, Baltimore has attracted an increasing number of day-trippers from as far away as New York and New Jersey. Yet downtown hotel capacity has been too puny to enable the city to take full advantage of the nationwide convention boom or opportunities offered by the expansion of the Convention Center.

That might change. John Paterakis' 750-room Inner Harbor East hotel is rising, despite the apparent lack of permanent financing. Next door, a 207-room Courtyard by Marriott is being built.

This construction will provide the first, new downtown hotel rooms since 1985. Yet in the past 14 years, Baltimore's tourism industry has grown by leaps and bounds. The construction does not change the fact that Baltimore lacks a convention headquarters hotel of some 1,200 rooms. And the city is unlikely to get such a magnet soon.

In fact, Harvey Schulweis, who has long toyed with the idea of building a hotel at the former News American site off Pratt Street, has recently scaled back his plan from 800 to 605 rooms, eliminated some conference rooms and reduced the size of an underground garage.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's determination to enforce current height restrictions at the Federal Hill waterfront site of the proposed Ritz-Carlton makes that project questionable.

Also uncertain is Peter G. Angelos' plan to build an 850-room hotel next to the Convention Center.

Baltimore's hotel building binge comes late in an extraordinarily long economic boom cycle. Sure, the city needs all the rooms it can get. But considering all the public assistance given to hotel developers, the Schmoke administration committed an unforgivable blunder in not making sure that money bought a true headquarters hotel for conventions the city desperately needs. This is a mistake the next mayor must correct.

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