A proposal for a major convention hotel to be built adjacent to the Baltimore Convention Center - on a city-owned parking lot that has seen grand ideas come and go - is to be unveiled at a City Hall news conference today.
Black Entertainment Television mogul Robert L. Johnson and the Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington, led by chairman Robert M. Gladstone, have proposed a Hilton hotel for a 4-acre lot west of the convention center and north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Mayor Martin O'Malley and others involved confirmed yesterday.
Details about the proposed size and cost, including the extent of any public subsidy, were not immediately available.
"I think it's big news, great news for the city," O'Malley said. "I believe this will be the first hotel of its size built in any city in the country since Sept. 11 hurt the tourism industry. This is a prime site and a prime location, and these guys are great developers who do what they say they're going to do. So this is a really exciting opportunity for the city."
The proposal came unsolicited, so the city must first allow others to bid on the property, which for at least a decade has been full of big ideas - and parked cars. The amount of public money sought for such a project is likely to become a major point of contention with the state and city governments facing serious budget concerns.
But if the proposal ultimately wins approval and is built, it could solve the most pressing need for Baltimore's convention trade: a large "headquarters" hotel beside the Convention Center. The project would also aid the continuing revitalization of the west side of downtown.
The development may also include a new home for Catholic Relief Services, the international assistance agency that early this year announced plans to move to the suburbs from downtown. The mayor persuaded the group to reconsider.
"We've been looking throughout Baltimore for an appropriate home, and we're excited by any options that may become available," said Jennifer Lindsey, a spokeswoman.
The principals in the hotel proposal, Quadrangle and Johnson, founder and former chief executive officer of BET, are already involved in the hospitality industry in Maryland.
Quadrangle is a partner in the 400-room Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Resort that opened to much fanfare after repeated delays in Cambridge in August.
It is also a partner in a plan to build an apartment building on Howard Street on the city's west side.
Johnson's RLJ Development LLC of Bethesda last year bought the 205-room Courtyard by Marriott-Inner Harbor for $26 million.
Johnson held 63 percent of BET when Viacom Inc., owner of the CBS, MTV and Nickelodeon television networks, bought it for $2.9 billion in stock and assumed debt two years ago. Johnson is also in discussions to buy the Montreal Expos and move them to Washington should Major League Baseball allow a second team in the area.
"A lot of good opportunities lay in Baltimore. It's a city we believe in," said Christian Chambers, a Quadrangle executive. The commercial developer also is involved in the Grand Hyatt at Washington Center and the J.W. Marriott at National Place, both in Washington.
Kathy Shepard, a spokeswoman for Hilton Hotels Corp., confirmed her company's involvement, but said it would not retain an equity stake.
"If and when the project is built, Hilton will manage it. This is what we do well," Shepard said. Hilton also manages convention center hotels in Washington, Chicago, New Orleans and San Francisco, among other cities.
The Baltimore Convention Center has failed to meet attendance projections made when lawmakers approved spending $151 million to triple its size five years ago. City tourism officials said the lack of a hotel next door has made it tougher to sell the city to convention goers - a fear that was raised when a more distant convention-hotel site was selected.
The development in Baltimore comes as Washington recently awarded Marriott Corp. negotiating rights for a new convention hotel in the nation's capital. It would eventually serve a new convention center set to open in March.
The Baltimore proposal could potentially benefit more than just the convention trade. The city is in the midst of a major facelift for the west side of downtown - once the shopping destination for Baltimoreans until blight and suburban flight took hold a generation ago. The project includes the $62.7 million conversion of the Hippodrome Theater into a Broadway-style playhouse.
"Having additional hotel rooms close to the university [of Maryland] and university medical system and Hippodrome Theater and Lexington Market - that's all very positive," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of the business group WestSide Renaissance Inc.