Promenade at Inner Harbor stirs a debate over funding

City set to pay for land, free owner of obligation

November 14, 1999|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

In a last-minute deal by outgoing Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the city has tentatively agreed to buy a mile-long strip of waterfront along Key Highway for $5.6 million, a move that could spark more development in southern Baltimore.

The purchase of the 20-foot-wide ribbon of land from the HarborView Properties Development Corp. would allow the city and state to build a brick walkway on what is now an asphalt path from Federal Hill almost to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, city officials said.

The move would also relieve HarborView Corp., which built the 27-story HarborView condominium tower on Key Highway, of its responsibility to pay for more than $20 million in repairs and improvements to the crumbling waterfront.

Strengthening the waterfront retaining wall would allow the company to build dozens of apartments and help a Florida-based developer build a Ritz-Carlton hotel on HarborView land near Federal Hill, said Franklin C. Wise, lawyer for HarborView.

Critics of the plan say it would be a waste for the city and state to pay more than $25 million for the project because a 1986 city law requires HarborView Corp. to build the promenade and allow public access to the water.

Skeptics say the cash-starved city can't afford to grant more subsidies to a development company that received a five-year tax break worth $2 million from the city in 1997.

Some worry that the deal would encourage other owners of waterfront property to demand money from the city to allow the public access to the water.

Jim Keat, a Federal Hill neighborhood activist, said using taxpayer money to help private development looks like a political favor.

"This is an outrageous misappropriation of public money," said Keat. "They are simply handing out public money for private benefit."

Lois Garey, a 1st District city councilwoman, asked, "Is the city going to pick up the cost of maintaining private bulkheads [waterfront retaining walls] in front of private developments all around the harbor? I absolutely do not favor this."

The purchase hinges on the approval of the city's Board of Estimates. No date has been set for a vote.

"The mayor wants to complete the waterfront promenade," said Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman. "It's a matter of public access to the waterfront so anyone can walk or jog along the harbor."

Public or private cost?

At the heart of the debate is whether the waterfront promenade -- described by many as a key to the city's future tourism and quality of life -- should be bankrolled by the government or by private landowners.

The city and state have spent tens of millions of dollars since 1969 extending the promenade from its beginning as a short walkway around the dock of the Constellation. Since the 1980s, the city has passed laws requiring waterfront landowners to build and maintain portions of the promenade.

Some developers -- including Selvin Passen and Constellation Real Estate Group -- have paid to build public walkways along the water in Canton and Fells Point.

The city has not stuck to that rule, however.

From 1992 to 1994, the city paid about $20 million to renovate a section of the waterfront beside John Paterakis' Inner Harbor East hotel and office project.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said there is no clear precedent for who should pay to build sections of the promenade.

"It's not unusual that the public would pay for the promenade. It paid for the whole Inner Harbor," Brodie said. "But we will have to look at this request on its own merits."

Walkway nearly complete

The walkway -- with its benches, old-style street lamps and views of sailboats in the harbor -- is more than 80 percent complete in its march along former industrial land from Canton to the Baltimore Museum of Industry in Locust Point.

Gaps in the seven-mile stretch remain. Walkers must detour onto city streets to skirt fenced-in former industrial sites owned by Allied Signal Co. on South Caroline Street and the Florida Rock Co. in Fells Point.

But the city and a nonprofit organization, the Living Classrooms Foundation, have moved the project forward in the past year. They worked together to lay blacktop along the waterfront beside Key Highway near the HarborView tower and along Boston Street.

The section near the HarborView condominium tower on Key Highway is turning into the most disputed part of the promenade.

Richard Swirnow, an engineer and builder trained at the Johns Hopkins University, bought the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard on Key Highway at auction for $24.4 million in 1986.

Seven years later, Swirnow's HarborView Corp. opened a 27-story, $80 million condominium tower financed by the conglomerate Parkway Holdings, which is controlled by the Tan family of Singapore.

The complex has a restaurant, a marina, a concierge, a gym, an indoor pool, a sauna, a private library, and party and conference rooms.

Changing plans

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