Fells Point backs Struever plan

Community-use concept favored at Recreation Pier

October 29, 2004|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Fells Point residents and business owners are backing plans by Baltimore-based Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse to redevelop the historic Recreation Pier, a switch from a neighborhood straw poll last month that favored a competing developer who proposed a boutique hotel.

Community members were swayed by a Struever Bros. pledge to tailor a concept favorable to community use and concerns whether Baltimore developer J.J. Clarke Enterprises Inc. would accommodate the tugboats that tie up at the pier.

J. Joseph Clarke, working with a New Orleans partner, wants to transform the century-old landmark pier into a three-story, European-style hotel with 45 rooms and artisan stalls beneath an atrium lobby. He has said his 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 last month sponsored by the Fells Point Task Force, an umbrella group of 14 community associations, Clarke's proposal won the most support in a preliminary poll of about 300 residents and business owners.

But in a final vote Wednesday night - on the most qualified developer, not on a specific plan - the task force favored Struever. Seven of the task force's 14 community associations chose Struever, four chose Clarke, two abstained and one voted against both proposals.

"This is a major step forward," said Larry White, a senior development director for Struever.

White said the community was sold on the developer's willingness to explore restoring as much of the Beaux Arts building as possible for public use, either a museum or artisan stalls similar to the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria, Va. White said the developer also tried to sell itself on its experience in completing dozens of historic renovations in Baltimore.

If a purely public use is not viable, White said, the company would consider developing a residential, commercial or hotel use, but acknowledged that the hotel appeared to be the most acceptable to the community. Any proposal would also keep Moran Towing at the pier, he said. Clarke could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The task force's vote is expected to weigh heavily in city officials' decision, which is expected soon.

`Very significant' vote

"The vote is very significant," said David Levy, an assistant housing commissioner for land resources in the Department of Housing and Economic Development, which requested proposals to redevelop the pier early last year. "We have always regarded the community input as central to this. The pier and the building are such central focal points in the neighborhood - or have the potential to be - that we want to get this right for the neighborhood and the city as a whole. This can be a regional attraction."

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

The question of how to preserve the pier has divided the community, with some favoring a commercial use, such as a hotel, that will draw people and boost local business. Others favor mostly community-oriented space, the restoration of the existing ballroom, market stalls, a museum, a permanent home for the Pride of Baltimore II.

But the community stands united on one thing: keeping the working tugboats in Fells Point.

"We have been assured by the city that no matter what, the tugboat lease [with the city] will be honored," said Jennifer Etheridge, chairwoman of the Fells Point Task Force Recreation Pier Committee and president of the Fells Point Homeowners' Association. "Fells Point really wants the tugs to stay. Moran really wants the tugs to stay. Those tugboats are what makes Fells Point one of the oldest continuously working waterfront communities on the East Coast."

Tugboats to stay

Levy said yesterday that any plan the city finally approves will accommodate Moran.

"The developer has to accommodate Moran Towing," Levy said. "Every proposal, including three that have been eliminated, had strengths and problems, and you never get anything that's sort of perfect at this early stage. We know that we've got a lease with Moran Towing, and we have no intention of abrogating that lease."

Community members said they were swayed by Struever's known work in the community and offers to finance an additional $25,000 to hire a professional grant writing consultant to pursue funding to support the renovation for public use.

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