Plan for Hilton downtown gets city panel's OK

BET founder's project chosen over 2 others

Hotel to anchor convention center

O'Malley to review $200 million proposal

October 25, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The most famous view in Baltimore - the cityscape seen from Camden Yards - appears likely to change soon with the construction of a $200 million convention anchor hotel just north of the stadium.

Nearly a year after a splashy City Hall announcement by Black Entertainment Television mogul Robert L. Johnson that he wanted to build a headquarters hotel in Baltimore, the city's quasi-public development agency has endorsed his development team's proposal over two others that have since applied for the job.

The hotel is viewed by city leaders and meeting experts as an urgently needed resource to help build business at Baltimore's economically lagging convention center, which was expanded recently at a cost of $151 million.

A new 750-room Hilton is expected to provide the large blocks of reserved rooms and physical proximity to the convention center that planners say are necessary to book large meetings.

The development is also expected to provide 200,000 square feet of office space to serve as a home for Catholic Relief Services, an international organization that helps deal with famine, disease and the aftermath of war around the globe.

"The process has been long," M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said in a news conference yesterday. "We think it's been thorough. We think it's been objective and fair."

Representatives of one of the losing teams expressed concerns earlier this week that they were "going up against a stacked deck" that favored Johnson.

The BDC board met behind closed doors for 3 1/2 hours Thursday and voted 10-0 in favor of the development team that partners Johnson's RLJ Development LLC with Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington.

The matter went to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley late Thursday night for his review and final action, which would award an exclusive negotiating priority.

"We're delighted to have been recommended by the BDC board," said Thomas J. Baltimore Jr., president of RLJ Development. "We look forward to moving this process forward, pending a final decision by the mayor."

While O'Malley's eventual acceptance of the BDC-endorsed plan appears likely, the mayor was keeping his options open yesterday.

"This is the beginning of a very, very long process," said Raquel Guillory, the mayor's press secretary. "What he's going to do is to thoroughly review the BDC recommendation. This is a major, multimillion dollar project, and he's going to make sure that any deal makes sense for the citizens of Baltimore as well as the business people involved."

RLJ president Baltimore said he expects the hotel to be completed by 2007 at the latest. Brodie confirmed reports that the hotel would be financed with tax-exempt bonds and owned by the city.

"It's not that people have turned to public financing because it's easy or there's no risk, but because private financing has dried up," Brodie said. The BDC board, in agreement with the BDC advisory panel, concluded that the three development teams had submitted no viable private ownership/private financing proposals, he said.

`Four good proposals'

Some BDC board members acknowledged that they walked into the meeting Thursday favoring the locally led Believe Team - which submitted two proposals, including an alternate site on Conway Street - but then changed their minds during the discussion, according to Board Chairman Arnold Williams.

"There were four good proposals, and then as you begin to dissect the proposals, the RLJ proposal just kept rising to the top," he said. "It was convention-friendly."

The board discussion included concerns over whether the alternate Conway Street site provided enough space for a headquarters hotel, sources close to the discussions said.

But David W. Beer, a partner in Brennan Beer Gorman Monk, said space at the Conway Street site was more than adequate.

"This is about as grand a hotel in its design as we've worked on, and we've worked on hundreds," said Beer, whose firm was brought in to work with the Believe Team. "This one would have offered a water view from almost half its rooms."

Three members of the 15-member BDC board were absent from the meeting and two others recused themselves from the vote, citing potential conflicts of interest. The BDC staff did not make a recommendation before the meeting to avoid the appearance of bias, since they market the city and had marketed it to Johnson, Brodie said.

An unusual process

The selection process has been troubled by controversy because of its secret nature, conducted almost entirely out of public view, and for the unusual twists and turns the submission of proposals took as developers were asked to go back to the drawing board on several issues.

Well into the review process, BDC asked developers to rework their proposals to include office space for Catholic Relief Services and to provide a plan for public financing and ownership.

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