Plan for Fells Point pier gets tentative nod

Three-story hotel with artist stalls gets most votes from community

September 23, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

After more than a year of controversy over proposals to redevelop Recreation Pier on Fells Point's waterfront, residents and business owners have given a preliminary nod to a proposal that would transform the historic landmark into a three-story, European-style hotel with artisan stalls beneath an atrium lobby.

Baltimore developer J.J. Clarke Enterprises Inc. and a New Orleans partner submitted a plan to turn the nearly 100-year-old pier into a 145-room hotel that would be managed by Kimpton Group, a hotel chain that operates boutique hotels.

"It's a good fit for Fells Point," said J. Joseph Clarke, president of J.J. Clarke.

Clarke's plan would preserve the neighborhood's trademark tugboat business, run by Moran Towing of Maryland, which has moored its fleet of red tugs at the pier since 1967 and rents offices in the pier building.

At a community meeting Monday sponsored by the Fells Point Task Force, an umbrella group of 14 community associations, Clarke's proposal won the most support from about 300 residents and business owners, said Jennifer Etheridge, chairwoman of the Fells Point Task Force Recreation Pier committee and president of the Fells Point Homeowners' Association.

The pier, an early-20th-century port of entry for immigrants that was later used for city recreation programs such as basketball and volleyball, was closed to the community in the early 1990s. It subsequently served as the set for the police headquarters for the TV crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street, and has been mostly vacant since the series ended in 1999.

"This grand old dame of Fells Point Harbor is sitting there slowly rotting," Etheridge said. "It's always been a community hub, be it welcoming new immigrants or transporting people from here to other places and back or welcoming people to participate in community activities. It's been that way for almost a century."

City has final say

The city Department of Housing and Community Development, which requested proposals to redevelop the pier early last year, is expected to heavily weigh community input in making the final choice. In August last year, it followed the association's recommendation in narrowing an initial field of five prospective developers to two, Clarke and Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse.

Development directors for Struever said yesterday they are willing to work with the community in coming up with the best and most economically viable use for the pier. The Baltimore developer is proposing an 80-room, two story hotel or a 70,000-square-foot office building.

The company said it was not wedded to a private, commercial use and would consider alternatives that, for instance, combine artist space with museum and park space. Any proposal would also keep Moran Towing at the pier.

Tugboats would stay

"The Moran boats coming and going are part of the magic of Baltimore Harbor," said Josh Nieman, a senior development director for Struever. "We don't want to see them leave."

He said all of Struever's proposals would include a community use.

"Ultimately, once the community and the city decides who is selected as developer, it's then that the work begins" to decide the best use for the pier, Nieman said.

Larry White, also a senior development director for Struever, said he thinks a final plan will emerge from community meetings to discuss what is economically viable and preferred by the community.

$28 million hotel

Clarke's proposal, in partnership with New Orleans-based Historic Restoration Inc., which specializes in redeveloping historic properties, calls for a $28 million hotel with an atrium and a ballroom that would be available free to community groups. It would include open space at one end of the pier and a roof deck, also open to the public.

The developer would finance the project with 75 percent debt and 25 percent equity, financed through the sale of historic tax credits.

"Our economics depend upon this being a historically designated landmark," Clarke said.

In a concession to community residents, Clarke said the developers agreed to give up their ground-floor parking and instead create about 16 market stalls for artists, modeled after Covent Garden in London.

The stalls would be housed in a glass-roofed structure that would extend through the center of the hotel lobby's atrium.

Vote due Oct. 27

Over the next month, each of the 14 individual community associations will consider the two proposals and a third option, to start the process from scratch, though that option only won a third of the votes at Monday's meeting. The task force will then vote Oct. 27.

Monday's vote is significant because it counts as one of the task force votes and because it would be the tiebreaker if the task force is split, Etheridge said.

Etheridge said Fells Point residents "liked the fact that Clarke wanted to put a hotel there from the very beginning and that the hotel partner is experienced in restoring and renovating historic buildings into hotels."

What people liked about the Struever plan, she said, "is that he's willing to work with the community. His plan has changed many times, so there's an indication he's willing to work with the community."

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