At City Hall, decision on hotel looms

Project: Key concerns linger as the mayor weighs whether to accept the latest recommendation for building a convention hotel.

November 02, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley is expected to announce by the end of the week his decision on the highly charged topic of where to build a convention headquarters hotel in Baltimore and which development team will be named to do it.

"The mayor is planning to review the written proposal over the weekend and to address any questions he has with BDC early next week, and then hopefully come to a decision by the end of the week," said Rick Abbruzzese, the mayor's deputy press secretary."

Few seriously expect the mayor to deviate from the hotel plan that has been recommended.

Still, as O'Malley weighs his options on the hotel, he must decide whether to alter sight lines from Camden Yards, give up prime real estate tailor-made for a Convention Center expansion and put the city in the hotel business.

Other questions he must consider are whether a headquarters for Catholic Relief Services should be part of the project and whether 750 is the right number of rooms to help resuscitate the flagging Convention Center.

"It seems to me that these questions the mayor has before him are less emotionally charged than the ones I had to face several years ago," said former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, now dean of the Howard University School of Law. He sparked controversy when he lobbied for the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel to be built instead of a hotel closer to the Convention Center.

"They are complicated and difficult, but less emotionally charged," Schmoke said. "The bottom line for him is he'll have to demonstrate that there's going to be a significant economic return to the city as a result of this new partnership model that he wants to enter into."

O'Malley has made it clear that he does not have to accept the recommendation made two weeks ago by Baltimore Development Corp., the city's quasi-public development agency, that Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and Quadrangle Development Corp., be awarded an exclusive negotiating priority to develop the $200 million public hotel project.

Still, the mayor heralded the original Johnson proposal to great fanfare in a press conference at City Hall a year ago. He applauded the inclusion of Catholic Relief Services in the plans that BDC helped the Johnson team put together.

The Johnson team has long been deemed a front-runner in the three-developer race for the convention headquarters hotel job.

Johnson's firm, RLJ Development LLC of Bethesda, has proposed building a 750-room Hilton, with nearly 62,000 square feet of meeting space on two city-owned lots just north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The proposal was the unanimous choice of 10 of the 15 BDC board members who voted on the matter.

The Johnson/Quadrangle hotel would have a 25,000-square-foot grand ballroom and a diagonal plaza running from Pratt Street and opening to a Camden Street plaza, which would be paved and landscaped.

An elevated all-weather walkway would cross Eutaw and Howard streets, connecting the hotel project with the Convention Center. The plan calls for 1,000 underground parking spaces, with restaurants and retail space at street level. The project also has a provision for an additional 250 rooms in a second phase.

Critics have asked whether 750 rooms is enough. A consultant's study recommended that a new headquarters hotel contain a minimum of 800. Also, there are concerns over whether the current site preserves the views from the ballpark and whether putting Catholic Relief Services on the site is the best use of such prime space.

The plan also would erase any chance of expanding the Convention Center on the two lots where the hotel would be built. And some officials have expressed concern over whether the city should be financing and owning a hotel with no financial details released to date on how that would work.

The Johnson/Quadrangle project won out over a proposal from a team headed by Portman Holdings LP of Atlanta in partnership with Treyball Development Inc., a Beverly Hills, Calif., real estate company headed by actor Will Smith and his brother Harry.

It also beat out two proposals from the Believe Team, which includes local 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.

That group also proposed an alternative site on Conway Street, near the Sheraton Inner Harbor.

"The question before the mayor is what is the highest and best use of this land and the public resources expended," said Klaus Philipsen, co-chair of the urban design committee of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "How do we get the best bang for the buck?"

Philipsen is convinced that the alternative site proposed by the Believe Team would have had distinct advantages for the city.

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