Key step on hotel is likely next week

Critics assail lack of input on big convention project

October 14, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The city is racing toward decisions on who will build a new convention headquarters hotel, where it will be built and other important details, including the number of rooms and its impact on sightlines from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Sources familiar with the process say an advisory panel of business leaders clearly favored two potential developers over a third and that a key recommendation could go to Mayor Martin O'Malley as early as next week on who should build the project, which is estimated to cost more than $200 million - almost certainly with public financing.

The board of the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development agency, is expected to receive a staff advisory at its Oct. 23 meeting. The board would then make its recommendation to the mayor, who has the ultimate authority to pick the developer.

Yet critics continue to raise concerns about the project, particularly about whether the hotel's 750 rooms will be enough and about putting a new headquarters next door for Catholic Relief Services. And they've raised concerns about whether the new hotel will adversely affect the views from the ballpark.

They also have criticized the process for allowing limited public input. "It strikes me that a lot more public discussion should have gone on," Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said yesterday in an interview on the Marc Steiner radio show on WYPR. "We are well down from the beginning [of the process]. This is not the beginning. There hasn't been, from the get-go, broad enough discussion."

But M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said on the same radio show: "The question for me is not if there should be public participation, but when. We're really at the beginning of a process."

Another guest on the radio show questioned whether there has been enough discussion of the proposed site just west of the Baltimore Convention Center and north of Oriole Park.

"We would contend that that hasn't been investigated enough," said Klaus Philipsen, co-chair of the urban design committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "We are not at the beginning anymore. That has already been decided. There are too many foregone conclusions."

But Brodie countered, saying that one of the development teams had proposed another site - on a parking lot on Conway Street just west of the Sheraton Inner Harbor.

"There is no foregone conclusion on the choice of a development team," Brodie said. "It is an objective process."

Although some hospitality industry experts say that a headquarters hotel should have 1,000 to 1,200 rooms, the development agency asked developers for a minimum of 750 and asked one of the developers to cut back on the number of rooms it had proposed.

"Is that going to be sufficient?" Norris asked. "We don't know."

Even with a headquarters hotel, Norris warned that Baltimore will be a "hard sell" given the cutbacks in travel after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the increasing use by companies of other technologies that eliminate travel and the fact that Baltimore is not a first-tier convention city.

The development agency's board is expected to take into account the views of the advisory panel of business leaders before making its recommendations to the mayor.

The advisory group met behind closed doors Sept. 26 for about four hours to ask questions of the three developers.

The proposals come from teams headed by Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television; Atlanta-based Portman Holdings LP teamed with Treyball Development Inc., a Beverly Hills, Calif., real estate company headed by actor Will Smith and his brother Harry; and a group of local developers.

The local team includes businessman Otis Warren; Willard Hackerman, head of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. who controls the Sheraton Inner Harbor and a neighboring parking lot; and Baltimore architect Peter Fillat, who designed the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel.

Although the group took no votes and did no ranking of the developers or their projects, the Portman-Treyball plan was the one that drew the least enthusiasm from the advisory panel, according to a source familiar with that group.

Mayor Martin O'Malley has insisted that the ultimate decision to pick the project's developer rests with him.

He also has voiced support for the process, which has occurred largely out of public view.

"I think that the evaluation of any economic development proposal has to be done with a certain amount of confidentiality," he said. "Other cities do it this way."

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