Of convention hotel plans, first is the least

Three groups step up to the plate with variety of proposals for Oriole Park area

Architecture: Review

March 09, 2003|By Edward Gunt | Edward Gunt,Sun Architecture Critic

When Mayor Martin O'Malley announced in a news conference last fall that the city had received an unsolicited proposal for a convention hotel, he seemed to be conferring preferred status on the team that submitted it.

Other groups had been working on plans for a hotel and didn't get a mayoral news conference. In fact, city leaders rarely call attention to unsolicited proposals. It was as if the mayor wanted to send notice that this team had his backing, and no one else need apply.

Since then, the city has received two more proposals for a convention hotel, and both turned out to be more creative than the one from the group O'Malley practically anointed. Was the mayor premature in touting one team, or was his Nov. 13 announcement calculated to flush out the others? Either way, there is reason to believe that the first team may be the worst choice for Baltimore and its struggling convention center.

The first team -- and beneficiary of exposure from O'Malley -- is headed by Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertain-ment Television, and Robert Gladstone, president of Quad-rangle Development Corp. They proposed a 750-room Hilton for the two city-owned blocks just west of the convention center and north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

A preliminary design by RTKL Associates called for a 24-story building to rise on the block bounded by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Eutaw streets, and a 15-story building to rise on the block bounded by Pratt, Eutaw, Camden and Paca streets. The western block also would have an eight-story headquarters for Catholic Relief Services.

The plan meets the city's request for a hotel with at least 750 guest rooms and related meeting space. But from an urban design standpoint, it's all wrong for a key gateway to Camden Yards. It would put the bulk of the hotel right in front of the open end of Oriole Park, blocking views to and from the stadium's seating bowl. It would block views of historic Camden Station from Pratt Street. It would violate the city's height limit for West Pratt Street. It would mean that a much-discussed plan for a public plaza in front of Camden Station could never be realized.

A competing proposal from a group called TreyPort Ventures provides 869 guest rooms and related meeting space. This team showed more deference to Oriole Park, by putting the taller building on the western block, and proposing a building less than 150 feet high for the eastern block, to minimize the obstruction of views to and from the stadium.

Headed by actor Will Smith and his brother Harry of Trey-ball Development in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Portman Holdings of Atlanta, TreyPort also makes a greater effort to energize downtown's west side by creating an "urban entertainment resort" that would attract people, even if they're not staying in the hotel.

Plans by John Portman & Associates include a light-and-sound show called the Eutaw Street Experience, patterned after the Fremont Street Experience of Las Vegas but intended to promote Baltimore's sports and entertainment industries. There also would be a spa and wellness clinic, a movie soundstage and recording studio, and a signature restaurant overlooking the ballpark.

TreyPort's attitude seems to be: If we have to build on both blocks north of Oriole Park, let's spice them up with amenities that will appeal to locals and out-of-towners alike.

Protecting Oriole Park

The final team showed the most respect for Oriole Park and Camden Station. It offered two options. The first calls for a 755-room Westin Hotel to rise on the block bounded by Pratt, Eutaw, Camden and Paca streets, and for an urban plaza and underground garage to be created in front of Camden Station.

The second option calls for a 43-story hotel to rise on a lot just west of the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel at Charles and Conway streets and in the air rights above the adjacent Sheraton garage. The Westin would be connected to the south side of the convention center, freeing the two blocks along Pratt Street for other uses, perhaps an arena.

The team behind this proposal includes Baltimore businessmen Otis Warren and Willard Hackerman; Garfield Traub Development of Dallas, and Peter Fillat Architects. They call themselves The Believe Team.

Their proposal is shaped not only by a desire to create a successful hotel but to follow urban design principles that would protect Oriole Park from encroaching development. They alone had the ability to suggest a Conway Street site because Hackerman owns the Sher- aton hotel and garage, and has an option to develop the land next to it.

The advantage of both scenarios is that they keep a plaza in front of Camden Station and preserve views to and from Oriole Park.

The second option would shift the hotel more to the Inner Harbor, energize Conway Street and link the hotel and convention center so that people could move from one to the other without crossing any streets.

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