Nightclub site eyed for hotel, high-rise

Firm's plan to develop Bohager's faces hurdles from city and neighbors

September 06, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Planners call it "the hole in the doughnut," the slightly ragged chunk of land in between pricey waterfront developments in Fells Point and Inner Harbor East.

Now a long-expected filling-in process may be starting -- and in a potentially big way.

A Timonium developer is looking to buy the site of Bohager's nightclub at 701 S. Eden St., so it can put up a small hotel and a high-rise with more than 400 apartments, city officials say.

"It's a major development, a huge development," said Bob Quilter, a city planner who heard a presentation by the developer, Cignal Corp.

The deal faces many hurdles, including a public rezoning process, and could be scaled back or scrapped. But Cignal's plan suggests that the area, which is home to a seed company, a steel fabricator and a building contractor, may look vastly different in a few years, thanks to development pressures on and near the water.

No one knows yet how such a transformation might look. The "hole" -- a handful of blocks bordered roughly by Caroline Street, Central Avenue, Lancaster Street and Eastern Avenue -- is bookended by two very different places.

To the east is Fells Point, a neighborhood blessed with many low-slung brick buildings, a style reflected even in new additions such as Bond Street Wharf. To the west is Inner Harbor East with taller, more modern-looking buildings, including the 32-story Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel.

"It's a test case," Quilter said of the Cignal proposal, adding that medium-size buildings could best act as a "cushion" between the two extremes.

Planners have told Cignal that the proposed 19- or 20-story tower is too high for the site, just a short walk from Fells Point's cobblestone streets and old rowhouses. Although there are no height restrictions on the Bohager's property, the city has an opportunity to shape the project in the rezoning process.

Club owner Damian Bohager did not return phone calls yesterday. Joseph V. Maranto, a principal with Cignal, said it was premature to discuss the plans.

People who have been briefed by Cignal say the plans call for a hotel facing Aliceanna Street and an apartment tower facing Lancaster Street.

`Matter of scale'

Some Fells Point residents share the city's view that the proposal is too big. They prefer housing to the Bohager's club, which they say has long been too noisy. At the same time, they worry that more than 400 apartments -- and the added traffic -- would put a strain on the neighborhood.

"It's a matter of scale," said Bob Keith, a member of the Fells Point Task Force, which met with Cignal executives weeks ago. Townhouses would be a better fit, he said.

Keith said he is confident Cignal would try to address concerns of Fells Point neighbors. And, in an interview Maranto said, "We work very closely with communities around our developments."

Last year, Cignal scaled back its North Shore at Canton development amid community opposition. It had planned warehouse-style offices, stores, houses and parking lots. Instead, it decided to build 62 townhouses and a separate set of 20 luxury townhouses.

Along with city and community concerns about an apart ment tower, there is also the question of whether a market exists for 400 more rental units in an area that has seen the addition of hundreds of apartments in recent years.

Realtor Sandy Switaj is skeptical.

Rents are steady. Some one-bedroom units in Fells Point are listed at over $1,000 a month. But, Switaj said demand has eased for apartments there and in Inner Harbor East.

"They're not moving as fast," she said.

Overall, Quilter said, he expects considerable change in coming years.

"This area probably is going to have a lot of pressure in the next five to 10 years," he said. Just to the south is the AlliedSignal peninsula, where a hotel, offices and shops are planned.

Filling the hole

For decades, people have driven through the "doughnut hole" to travel between downtown and Fells Point, but there has been little reason to stop. Almost no one lived south of Eastern Avenue and the businesses were not ones that relied on retail customers.

Harry Hurst's family moved its Meyer Seed Co. to the corner of Fleet and Caroline streets from downtown in 1969, and he has seen the pace of change accelerate in the past 10 years. Recent arrivals include a series of buildings two blocks west of Meyer Seed that rise 10 or 12 stories: Sylvan Learning Systems, Promenade apartments, a Courtyard by Marriott hotel.

To the east of Meyer Seed, the Whitman, Requardt and Associates engineering firm moved into new four-story offices on Caroline Street this year. Around the corner, the six-story, $33 million Bond Street Wharf office building is nearing completion.

Today the area immediately around Meyer Seed consists mostly of one- to three-story brick buildings occupied by businesses. Vacant lots are scattered here and there. Bohager's, with its giant white tent-like roof and raucous "foam parties," has been at its site since 1999.

No plans to move

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