Ritz lops 20 floors from hotel at Harbor

Height rules protecting Federal Hill view trim project to 6 stories

October 22, 1999|By Kevin L. McQuaid | Kevin L. McQuaid,SUN STAFF

The Florida developer facing community and political opposition to a plan to construct a Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel south of the Inner Harbor said yesterday that he will alter the design of the $100 million project to conform with height limits and other rules that protect historic Federal Hill.

Developer Neil Fisher's decision to abandon plans for a 26-story hotel and condominium project on a site adjacent to the Rusty Scupper restaurant comes as he has committed himself to helping build a planned $150 million community in Southwest Baltimore for senior citizens and the deaf.

Fisher's decision to commit himself to a mid-rise hotel project rather than a skyscraper is a major victory for Federal Hill residents, who have battled the project since February because it would have blocked waterfront views from the historic hill.

"Life is full of compromises," Fisher said yesterday. "It's how things get done. I understand and am sensitive to the concern for Federal Hill. I still think that a single, slender tower would work best for the property, but that's not going to happen. I believe now we have a plan that meets my needs and the needs of Ritz-Carlton and the community."

Fisher's revised plan for the 250-room hotel -- which comes in the wake of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision in July to keep height limits in effect -- calls for three buildings connected by a base with view corridors between the structures. The reworked plan is similar to one the developer proposed nine months ago.

All three buildings would have six stories and would meet the 71-foot limit that has governed the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. property since the mid-1970s to preserve the view from the 82-foot-high Federal Hill.

The height limits, which prevent Fisher from developing the 270-foot-tall hotel he proposed in June, apply through June 2007.

Fisher said he intends to present the revised plans, being crafted by New Jersey architectural firm Michael Graves & Associates Inc., at a meeting of the city's Planning Department on Nov. 2.

The Ritz-Carlton is one of nine hotels being proposed for downtown, projects that would add nearly 3,500 rooms. Two hotels, a 750-room Marriott and a 207-room Courtyard by Marriott, both east of the Inner Harbor, are under construction.

"If what we've heard is true, it's a great win for everyone," said Dick Leitch, president-elect of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "We've always thought the land would be a good site for a Ritz-Carlton and that it would be appropriate for an upscale project.

"Federal Hill is one of the most spectacular urban views in America, so much so that it is protected by the federal government. I feel vindicated. We hung in there and now have a development plan that is a win for everyone, but we don't have the exploitation that we would have had if the view of the water could be afforded by those in a Ritz-Carlton hotel room."

Unresolved is funding for bulkhead and promenade work that Fisher says is required before demolition of a vacant, six-story building and construction of the hotel can begin.

State transportation officials told residents at a community meeting this month that it would cost $27 million to replace bulkheads around the Key Highway property, up from the "as much as $20 million" projected earlier this year.

Although city economic development officials have not pinpointed where Baltimore's share of the money would come from, the city has applied to the state for credit to pay for half of the work, said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., whose district includes Key Highway.

"Everyone realizes this is a prime, perhaps the prime, piece of real estate in the Inner Harbor," Della said. "And now, they seem to have taken notice of the community opposition, and we'll have to wait to see the plans and see their reaction."

The plan to construct the hotel with three buildings marks the latest design change for the project. In all, Fisher has changed designs six times since it was proposed in February.

"This project will be unique to the Ritz-Carlton chain," Fisher said. "They want to be in Baltimore, and I just want to get it done while there is money available."

Fisher said his decision to acquiesce to residents' concerns over the Ritz-Carlton resulted largely from his involvement with Wyndholme Village, a 33-acre project in Southwest Baltimore for senior citizens and the deaf that was forced to file for bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure by an Ohio lender.

Fisher said he hopes the project, which he will construct with developer Jim Lancelotta in Irvington, could be a prototype for similar projects nationwide.

Fisher and partners have invested $2 million to acquire a mortgage and spur Wyndholme's development. Fisher and Lancelotta plan 1,300 residential and assisted living units for the deaf and the elderly. Fisher said he hopes to lift the project from bankruptcy in mid-December.

"Neil Fisher has treated me like gold," Lancelotta said. "He's a tough businessman, but he's fair and he's come through with the money we need to get moving, and he's never asked me for a dime. I'm thrilled to be working with him."

Lancelotta, whose grandparents were deaf, has been working on the Wyndholme project, near Mount St. Joseph High School, since 1995. He has contracts to sell 30 of the units in the first phase of the project, scheduled for completion in August, for an average of $165,000, he said.

Fisher said he is studying replicating the project's concept in Florida and Virginia.

"This will bring national attention to Baltimore," Fisher said. "It'll be a signature project for Baltimore and a prototype for other deaf communities across the country."

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