The Baltimore Board of Estimates is set to vote today on an amendment to the Fells Point Urban Renewal Plan that would allow Whitman, Requardt and Associates to build its headquarters there - a project some residents feel would disrupt the historic area.
The amendment would clarify that the land bordered by South Caroline, Lancaster, Dock and Dallas streets is a mixed land use and disposition lot, which would allow for construction of the engineering design firm's building, said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp. Such clarity is needed because the language within the Urban Renewal Plan concerning the site is too vague, Brodie said.
"There can't be ambiguity about this sort of stuff," he said.
The City Law Department determined that the amendment was minor and therefore the Board of Estimates could vote on it, Brodie said. However, some Fells Point residents have voiced concern that the amendment should instead be ruled on by the City Council.
"We would like to welcome Whitman, Requardt to the community," said Romaine Somerville, director of development for the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point. "But we are concerned that ... it won't set a precedent for making major changes in the Urban Renewal Plan without going through the City Council."
Some residents are also worried that the proposed four-story 76,000-square-foot building and a parking garage for 320 cars would harm the appearance of the neighborhood. The $11.3 million project will border the expansion of the Black Olive restaurant.
"It's terribly important to keep Fells Point the way it is - its historic buildings and the scale of the community. Skyscrapers would destroy it," resident Bob Keith said. "Everybody wants to come here because it's so great, but everybody wants to come here with excess that will destroy it. That is the heart of the problem; that includes Whitman, Requardt."
Richard Lortz, managing partner of the firm, said the company met with community groups beginning in May to address such concerns. He said he feels that the groups and his company are in "total agreement" about the project after at least 20 meetings that resulted in some changes to meet the community's needs.
Such changes include a wider sidewalk on South Dallas Street and changing the structure to give it the appearance of a three-story building to better blend in with other Fells Point buildings. The changes reduced the building size from 80,000 to 76,000 square feet.
"We are not attempting to recreate a historic building, but we're trying to bring in architectural features that are compatible with the community," Lortz said. "I feel safe in saying that ... [the community groups] are satisfied that we are working in that direction."
However, Nelson Adlin, owner of Phoenix/M Development Co. in Fells Point and a representative on the Fells Point Task Force, said he feels the building's construction will result in the Urban Renewal Plan rules being "pushed aside."
"It's a fine company," Adlin said. "But we wonder so many times about people's insensitivity about a community that they've been drawn to."
Lortz said the company of 270 Baltimore employees is outgrowing its six-story building in the 2300 block of St. Paul St. in Charles Village and that Fells Point is an appropriate place for their offices.
"We've been a very good neighbor in the areas where we've conducted our business, and we want to stay in Baltimore City," he said. "We feel this is the best for us and also good for Baltimore City."
Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall, but if the board doesn't pass the amendment it could be brought before the City Council in September, Brodie said.