Convention hotel planners thinking outside the blocks

Architecture

Believe Team would develop its project on Conway Street, not on proposed site

February 17, 2003|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

One of the biggest problems with finding a developer for a convention hotel in downtown Baltimore is the land that has been identified as the likely construction site.

The two city-owned blocks offered for development -- bounded by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Paca streets -- are just west of Baltimore's Convention Center. But they're separated from the meeting facility by six lanes of traffic, a light rail line and an underground train tunnel. And they're separated from each other by Eutaw Street.

Furthermore, the height of any structure must be limited to accommodate the flight paths of helicopters heading to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center nearby. There's also widespread concern that a large hotel would block critical views to and from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. All of which makes the city property an unusually complicated site on which to build what could be Baltimore's largest hotel.

What if there were a better location -- just as close to the convention center but not saddled with the urban design constraints of the blocks along Pratt Street?

That's the intriguing possibility raised by one of the three proposals submitted to the city this month in response to its request for bids from developers seeking to build a convention hotel.

While two groups confined their plans to the city-owned parcel, a third group identified a privately owned tract on Conway Street as a potential site for a 43-story hotel that could be connected to the convention center from the south, rather than from the west. That opens the possibility that the city could save the blocks it controls along Pratt Street for other uses.

Of the three proposals, this is the one that challenges previous assumptions about the best approach to building a convention hotel downtown. It shows that the city doesn't have to construct a hotel on land that may not be right for it. It suggests that there could be a better way.

The other bids came from groups headed by Robert Johnson, founder of the Black Entertainment Television network, and a joint venture of Treyball Development and Portman Holdings. Each proposed to fill both city blocks with hotel structures, containing between 750 and 1150 guest rooms.

Johnson's plan, by RTKL Associates, would rise 24 stories on the eastern block, or about 240 feet, and eight stories on the western block, or about 80 feet. Treyball's project, designed by John Portman & Associates, would rise about 150 feet on the eastern block and about 225 feet on the western block.

The third proposal was submitted by a largely local team consisting of Otis Warren & Co., Willard Hackerman of Whiting Turner Contracting Co., and Peter Fillat Architects. They are working with Garfield Traub Development of Dallas and Westin Hotels. The group calls itself the "Believe Team."

To be deemed responsive to the city's request for proposals, this team submitted two scenarios, one using only the two blocks west of the convention center, and one using additional land that's privately owned.

In its first plan, the Believe Team called for the easternmost city block, bound by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Eutaw streets, to be converted to public open space, with room for a possible Maglev station. Its hotel would be on the western block, rising 19 stories or 230 feet and containing 755 rooms. Architect Peter Fillat said the design reflects a strong desire on the team's part to keep open the land in front of historic Camden Station and preserve views in and out of Oriole Park.

"To fill both of these blocks with buildings would be a tragedy for the city," Fillat said. "The view of downtown from the ballpark is what adds to its magic. It's Baltimore's face to the world right now."

This plan indicates that it is possible to fit a 750-room hotel on the western block alone and that a major hotelier would be willing to operate it with that configuration, even if it means guests must walk one block to the convention center.

The commitment to retain the eastern block as a world class public space -- Believe Plaza? -- separates this plan from the others. Then, building on this idea, the Believe Team developed a second scenario that called for the hotel not to rise west of the convention center at all.

This alternative calls for the hotel to be constructed on the north side of the 100 block of West Conway Street, between the Otterbein Church and the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel at S. Charles and Conway streets.

The land is a vacant lot that is zoned for high-rise commercial development. The hotel would also be constructed in the air rights above the Sheraton hotel's garage. The vacant land and air rights are owned by Rouse-Teachers Land Holding Inc. Fillat said Hackerman has an option to acquire both. Hackerman already owns the 351-room Sheraton hotel.

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