City pier project has new partner

Focus joins Clarke to make Fells Point landmark into hotel


The developer chosen more than a year ago to transform Fells Point's landmark Recreation Pier into a three-story, European-style boutique hotel plans to start construction this fall with a new partner.

Baltimore developer J.J. Clarke Enterprises Inc. and a New Orleans partner, HRI Properties, were chosen in December 2004 to redevelop the pier at the foot of Broadway. But the $50 million project was delayed for several months after HRI dropped out and Clarke discovered worse-than-expected deterioration of the century-old pier.

Yesterday, developer J. Joseph Clarke said he would complete the project with a new partner, Baltimore-based Focus Development. Focus developed the 116-room Hampton Inn & Suites downtown at the corner of Calvert and Redwood streets in the former USF&G Insurance building in March 2004.

HRI Properties was forced to drop out of the project last fall after Hurricane Katrina damaged its New Orleans properties. HRI, which specializes in reviving abandoned, historic neighborhoods, had helped to transform New Orleans' old Warehouse District into a trendy enclave of art galleries, museums, restaurants, hotels and upscale and mixed-income apartments.

Clarke said he has continued work on pier engineering and architectural drawings while searching for a new partner.

"We looked all over the place and found a firm right here in Baltimore," Clarke said. "They have the equity to bring to the deal and the knowledge, and they are experienced hotel developers and owners," with other hotel properties in Florida.

Rick Diehl, a Focus principal, could not be reached yesterday.

Revised plans for the as yet un- flagged 185-room hotel include expanded parking, with about 77 spaces, and a spa with a pool, Clarke said. The historic "head" building will stay intact and become a hotel ballroom, and a restaurant is expected to open on site, he said.

The developers are in talks with about four potential hotel operators.

City housing officials are comfortable with the team's new partner and the project's direction, said David Tillman, a spokesman for city's Department of Housing and Community Development, which owns the Recreation Pier. Tillman said Chris Shea, deputy commissioner for development, met with Clarke and felt confident that "the development team has the capacity and this deal is going to move forward quickly." The city's sale of the property to Clarke's team still requires Board of Estimates approval.

Clarke had hoped to start construction this summer. But the search for a new partner and extensive engineering work to determine the stability of the pier pushed the project back. Engineers have discovered the pier to be rapidly deteriorating. Shoring up the pier by rebuilding the 405 pilings to create a stable platform will cost about $8 million, far more than the original estimate of $2 million to $3 million, Clarke said.

"The condition of the pier is much worse than we thought it was," he said. "The pier is falling into the harbor; there's no two ways about it."

The project has secured about $10 million in state and federal historic tax credits to help offset the cost, Clarke said.

The pier, an early 20th-century port of entry for immigrants that was later used for city recreation programs, 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.

The city viewed it as an underused, but valuable community resource at serious risk of collapse, and had said the desires of the community would weigh heavily in selecting a developer. The community was split over the pier's future use, with some favoring a commercial development such as a hotel to draw people and boost local businesses. Others preferred mostly community-oriented space, restoration of the existing ballroom, market stalls, a museum, and a permanent home for the Pride of Baltimore II.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano chose Clarke's plan for renovating the pier over a proposal by Baltimore-based Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, noting the Clarke team's plans to preserve the historic nature of the pier and the neighborhood's trademark tugboat business, run by Moran Towing of Maryland. The housing commissioner also said the community had shown preference for a hotel over housing or offices.

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