Harbor homes awaited

Condos: The first step in building the Ritz-Carlton - clearing the site - is to begin next month.

April 24, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Demolition is to begin next month at the Bethlehem Steel building that currently stands at the foot of Federal Hill where the long-stalled Ritz-Carlton luxury condominium project is expected to rise.

On May 19, a huge hoe will begin clawing at the old building, and Ritz developers will celebrate with a splashy evening party, complete with celebrities and fireworks, signaling the launch of the 165-unit project off Key Highway, a location considered among the prime remaining undeveloped Inner Harbor settings.

"We have taken the best of everything we've done and put it into this project," Daniel K. Pfeffer, president of New York-based Midtown Equities LLC, one of the partners, said yesterday. "We've put our heart and soul into this thing."

Midtown, along with partners Samuel & Co. of Miami and Edward V. Giannasca II, president and chief executive of Baltimore-based Giannasca Development Group LLC, hopes to complete the project about two years after construction officially begins.

"Stand on the edge of the harbor there, and look to the city," said Pfeffer, whose firm has been involved in dozens of projects in Miami, New York, Washington and New Jersey. "It's so serene over there. It's the most beautiful site we've ever developed."

The project, with a cost of more than $155 million, has been dogged by financial and legal disputes. Once intended to have a hotel component, the project was modified because potential residents did not want hotel traffic on their property. Units will sell for an average of $1.4 million. The condominiums will be managed by Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

"The project itself is very exciting," said Andrew B. Frank, executive vice president of Baltimore Development Corp. "That a $155 million project on the waterfront can move forward without any public investment, that's a testament to where Baltimore is today compared to where it was five years ago."

Frank praised the developers' willingness to make a multimillion-dollar investment in Baltimore in the form of bulkhead repairs and construction of the promenade.

"It was a conspicuous gap between the end of the Inner Harbor promenade and where it picked up again" at a nearby development, Frank said.

Although the project has been the subject of heated community meetings, most neighbors in Federal Hill appear to have resigned themselves to it, and some are contemplating the benefits such a development may bring.

"What we all realize is that it's going to happen," said Keith Losoya, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "Most of them see it as a benefit to their property values, that it's the Ritz Carlton, that it has a five-star restaurant, that it's bringing in prime retail. They figure that if anything is going to go there, this would be the most beneficial."

But fundamental concerns remain over the use of the 5.6-acre site.

"The lingering negatives are that it does alter the view and the history of the area," Losoya said. "Everybody's feelings are not going to be satisfied any time there's development. People don't like change."

At a meeting Tuesday, members of the neighborhood association again sought comfort from members of the project's design group on several aspects of construction and seemed to leave satisfied, Losoya said.

"The majority of people were pleased with the way the development was presented," Losoya said. "We're pleased with the fact that it's condos because they're going to be neighbors rather than transient visitors to a hotel. That name generally does add value to an area, and whatever premier retail they're going to lure in is also something we're looking forward to and something we can take advantage of."

Planned features include a five-star restaurant to be managed independently, a 15,000-square-foot spa, a marina, a gourmet food market, a cafe, a billiards room, meeting rooms and a private luxury movie theater.

A ballroom once planned for hotel guests has been eliminated to make room for the glass-enclosed, climate-controlled spa and pool, which will overlook the Inner Harbor.

In January, a legal dispute that had delayed progress on the project was settled. "There's so much momentum, there's nothing that can stop this project at this point," Pfeffer said.

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