The Board of Estimates narrowly approved an amendment yesterday that clears the way for a major development in Fells Point, despite votes against it by the City Council president and the city comptroller.
The amendment to the Fells Point Urban Renewal Plan changed the land-use designation of a parcel at Caroline and Lancaster streets from residential and commercial to mixed use.
Whitman, Requardt & Associates, an engineering firm in the 2300 block of St. Paul St., will move its headquarters to a four-story building to be erected on the site. A 325-space parking garage also is part of the planned development that will border an expansion of the Black Olive restaurant.
Though the city's Law Department wrote an opinion describing the land-use change as a minor amendment, City Council President Sheila Dixon and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt contended it was a major change and should have required public hearings and City Council approval.
The Law Department maintained, however, that the change was a minor one and required only the approval of the five-member Board of Estimates. Although Dixon and Pratt support the project, they voted against the amendment to change the plan.
"Changing that use, in my opinion, is substantial and major," said Pratt. "And, of course, it should have been discovered prior to the ninth hour."
The development deal had been in the planning stages for a couple of years before the designation problem was discovered. Under the old land-use designation, the building could not legally be built on the site.
Several community activists attending the hearing also said they were concerned about the approval process, which did not require a public hearing. The Law Department's opinion allowed the change to go through the board rather than the City Council.
"The Urban Renewal Plan is the Urban Renewal Plan, but it keeps getting chopped at and chopped at," said Harriet Kohl, Fells Point Homeowners Association president.
Dixon said she will introduce a bill in the fall to ensure that similar changes go through the council in the future. "My bill is very simple," she said. "It says that all amendments to urban renewal plans are substantial amendments, and they would have to go through the process of an ordinance."