Federal Hill takes dim view of proposed 290-foot towers

Panel envisions mixed-use buildings along waterfront

April 16, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

A plan that could create a new South Baltimore skyline with as many as four new residential and retail towers has rattled Federal Hill's homeowners and businesses, who say such extreme changes threaten their quality of life and their livelihoods.

The plan to revitalize Key Highway would drastically raise the height limits on buildings along that stretch of South Baltimore waterfront. New high-rises reaching 290 feet would take the bragging rights from HarborView Tower, now the tallest building on that side of the water.

The thought of that much height so close to Federal Hill's historic charms chills Paul W. Robinson, founder of Friends of Federal Hill Park. Like many of his neighbors, he's pleading for someone to stop it.

"Mr. Mayor, Save Federal Hill," Robinson said yesterday, hoping his message would reach the right ears. "We think there's a serious threat here."

The proposal is the result of weeks of work by a task force of planners, developers and community stakeholders, convened by the city to draft a plan to guide South Baltimore's white-hot waterfront toward becoming a dense and lively residential area.

To achieve that, the task force recommends erasing the last vestiges of industrial zoning from the books and replacing it with residential, raising the limits on building heights, and softening Key Highway so that it feels more like a pedestrian-friendly boulevard than a highway.

The city's target area is the stretch of Key Highway from the American Visionary Arts Museum to the Museum of Industry. About 9 acres along that route are targeted for rezoning.

Baltimore Planning Director Otis Rolley III had considered the plan a "slam dunk," figuring that everyone would see how urban-planning perfect it would be to transform the rough-hewn highway. Its vacant lots and uninviting water access would become something more like Harbor East, with its pricey condos, luxury grocery store and plethora of restaurants.

"But clearly there was a disconnect," Rolley said, adding that at a community meeting this week to unveil the proposal, "a woman told me to take the plan and shove it."

That was a popular sentiment as news spread through Federal Hill's network of neighborhood and business associations.

Bonnie Crockett, executive director of Federal Hill Main Street Inc., said that "all hell broke lose" this week when people began to pass the word. "It's all anyone can talk about," she said.

Though the task force included representatives from four community groups, most homeowners had no idea that a plan with such lasting impact was in the works.

Feeling stung, shut out of the process and fearful, community leaders spent the latter half of this week firing off crisis alert e-mails and speed-dialing local politicians to enlist their help.

The plan can't pass without approval from the Baltimore City Council.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who represents a portion of South Baltimore and who also wasn't privy to details of the plan, has fielded plenty of calls from upset residents.

"Anybody who lives in that area should be worried," Mitchell said. "I'll be working with the community, and hopefully we can correct this."

State Sen. George W. Della Jr. said he's "absolutely" against the plan, particularly its potentially view-blocking 290-foot height limits.

"That's not an option," he said slowly, exaggerating each syllable to underscore his point. "They can't just ram something through because they've got a mission at hand, a grand scheme."

The city is hurrying the plan because the redevelopment of a key parcel hinges on a successful rezoning.

In a matter of weeks, the Baltimore Development Corp. will open bids for the former city Fire Department repair shop property at 1407 Key Highway. The parcel, about the size of a city block, is where city planners envision the first of a series of mixed-use towers, with retail on the first level and residences on all the floors above.

That's impossible unless the property is rezoned from industrial to residential. And, according to Rolley, there's no sense in rezoning that land without taking its surroundings into consideration.

The area is "ripe" for mixed use, Rolley said, and ideal for high density.

Tall, slender buildings rather than sprawling, squat ones, will permit people to still get their water views if they look between the buildings, Rolley explained.

Moreover, the city could create a public promenade around the harbor, giving people a chance to walk the water - something not encouraged with the private townhouses and businesses that line the harbor there now.

Developers find the potential exciting.

The task force included major South Baltimore developers such as HarborView developer Richard Swirnow and Patrick Turner, president of Henrietta Development Corp., the company turning a Locust Point grain elevator into luxury condos.

Turner, who said he's interested in property on Key Highway, too, said the plan will help South Baltimore adapt and grow.

"It's a bunch of vacant warehouses sitting around, and parking lots - that's not positive," he said of the area.

But homeowners and local businesses intend to protest the plan.

Sonny Morstein, who owns a century-old Federal Hill jewelry store and leads the South Baltimore Business Association, finds the proposed retail ominous for the shops of Light and Charles streets.

The task force didn't ask for Morstein's opinion, but he vows that they'll hear it.

"Here's a 200-store retail district that's coming back and doing well - is that a consideration?" Morstein asked. "This impacts us profoundly."

Even Keith Losoya, who represented the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association on the task force, feels blindsided.

"The planning department ... always intended to extend the height limitations for the developers," he said. "We never knew what they really had in mind."

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