The other hotel project

August 07, 2005

THE PROPOSED Inn at Camden Yards is a done deal. So what's all the fuss? The city's sale of two parcels of land at the heart of the 126-room hotel project has raised questions six months after the fact, and it's easy to see why. The development deal took an arduously long time to get done, two appraisals gave wildly different values for the land, and by the time the city's Board of Estimates approved the deal in January, the sale price was for about half of the initial 2002 appraised value of $1.3 million. In a city with property values climbing and sales booming and City Hall crowing about it all, who wouldn't wonder if the city got taken?

Development deals don't always go smoothly. But if one involving the sale of city land can't be completed in a timely manner, the city should seek to renegotiate the price to reflect market changes. The Camden Yards hotel deal was anything but timely.

The project involves two parcels that border Greene and Portland streets and Washington Boulevard, directly across from Oriole Park. The year before developer Duane Taylor began leasing one of the city-owned parcels for a parking lot in late 1999, Ravens Stadium opened. Since then, the University of Maryland has expanded its complex. The west-side development project has progressed well, which is to say the city landscape has changed there, and with it the market for development.

The Baltimore Development Corp., which negotiated the Camden hotel deal, argues that the city-owned parcels were never gems in the rough. On the contrary, they're small, oddly shaped and compromised by underground utilities. The million-plus appraisal, BDC says, was just plain wrong, and the city real estate office concurred with that. BDC did reject Mr. Taylor's $400,000 offer and set the sale price at $609,000, based on a 2003 appraisal. But it was another 19 months before the deal received final approval -- a delay surely not in the city's financial interest. But we can't know for sure because the city parcels were never reappraised in the interim.

Baltimore Councilman Robert W. Curran, who chairs the body's investigations committee, has rightly questioned the process and is holding September hearings on it. BDC admits the deal took inordinately long; it backed the novice developer because the city stood to gain a $10.5 million private investment with 45 jobs.

The city has a way to ensure that it's getting the best value for its land. But BDC didn't follow the policy, and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, whose office originally proposed it, didn't object. Approved by the Board of Estimates in July 1996, the policy states: "Every sale or purchase of property, involving the City of Baltimore, shall have at least one current appraisal." Current means within the last six months. At the time, the city's real estate officer said the policy was in the best interest of the city and its citizens. We couldn't agree more.

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