Residents need a say in hotel proposals

ARCHITECTURE

City lacks plans to solicit public input on designs

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

When Baltimore redevelopment officials received three proposals from groups that wanted to recycle an old fire station on North Avenue, they scheduled a community meeting to get public reaction before selecting one team to proceed.

When the city got multiple bids for the old Northern District police station in Hampden and the Railway Express building in midtown, they did the same thing. Developers typically are notified that they'll be asked to present plans to the public as part of the selection process.

Now city officials are reviewing three proposals for what could be one of the largest and most expensive buildings ever constructed in downtown Baltimore - a $150 million-to-$250 million convention hotel. But even though this project involves city land and has the potential to affect many more people than a recycled fire station, decision makers have made no comparable effort to seek community opinion or reaction.

The developers were invited to present their plans last week in closed-door sessions with representatives of the Baltimore Development Corp., the agency that sought the bids. But no public meetings have been held, and none are scheduled. For an administration that prides itself on running a "transparent" government, this is anything but.

The discrepancy has not been lost on members of one group following the process, the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Klaus Philipsen, co-chair of group's urban design committee, said he would like to see the development corporation sponsor a public forum on the hotel proposals, just as it held an informational meeting recently about the revised master plan for the Inner Harbor.

He said such a meeting would be a good chance for people to learn about the proposals and get questions answered.

"The city is using public resources" to build the hotel, he said. "There should be public discussion about this."

The city has identified a two-block area bordered by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Paca streets for development of the hotel. The three groups proposed buildings for that city-owned property and, in one case, a private parcel on Conway Street west of the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel. The hotels would rise from 15 to 43 stories, and would require public funding assistance.

M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the development corporation, said his agency is always open to public comment about redevelopment proposals.

"People can call or write or e-mail us," he said. "If community groups want to express themselves, they can."

Such a stance might be appropriate if people had a good opportunity to learn about the proposals under consideration. But the agency has been slow to release detailed information about all three proposals so people can form opinions about which is best.

On Nov. 13, 2002, Mayor Martin O'Malley held a news conference to announce that the city received one proposal, from Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television, and to say the city was required by law to seek others.

When the others came in, the mayor's office did not have a news conference. Instead, the Baltimore Development Corp. issued a news release summarizing highlights of the three proposals. The difference in the way the proposals were announced created the impression, fairly or unfairly, that the city has a favorite - Johnson's.

Brodie denies that the city is playing favorites or that the bidding process has been wired for one team. He said Johnson's competitors raised the same issue and have all been assured that their proposals will get full and careful consideration.

He noted that there will be time down the road for public meetings, such as when financial details come to the Board of Estimates for approval or if amendments to existing urban renewal plans are needed. But such meetings presumably would come after the development team and site have been selected. That means the public would be left out of some of the most important early decisions.

The two developers that didn't get a news conference have taken steps to make sure they aren't ignored.

The group that proposed a Conway Street hotel, the Believe Team, set up a Web site (www.pfarc.com) so the general public can stay abreast of its plans. TreyPort Ventures, a group that includes movie star Will Smith and his brother Harry, issued its own release.

The result is that information about the hotel proposals has come out in dribs and drabs, with each team putting its own spin on the details.

Is Conway Street the right place for what could be the city's tallest building? Is it better than Pratt Street? How would the downtown skyline change? How would all three proposals affect views to and from Oriole Park? Which plan would work best with the high-speed Maglev line proposed to go from Baltimore to Washington? There is no clearinghouse for information.

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