Project marked by tension from start

Federal Hill residents have fought to limit building heights and preserve views

June 23, 2006|By LORRAINE MIRABELLA | LORRAINE MIRABELLA,SUN REPORTER

It was a dicey gamble in the late 1980s when developers began clearing an old ship-repair yard on Key Highway for condominium towers. By the time HarborView's signature tower rose in 1993, the real estate market had taken a dive and the condos became rentals two years later.

Today HarborView is flourishing as a high-end waterfront development on the Inner Harbor's southern rim with homes that can fetch upwards of $1 million. About 1,000 residents live there in condominiums, apartments and townhouses.

But over two decades marked by market gyrations, changes of partners and delays, one theme has remained constant: tension between developers, led by Richard A. Swirnow, and residents of the nearby Federal Hill neighborhood.

Since the earliest days of the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. shipyard redevelopment, community members have fought to limit building heights, preserve views to the harbor and keep waterfront access open to the public. Yesterday, in response to complaints about height, city officials issued a stop-work order on HarborView's most recent project, the construction of 88 luxury pier townhouses. Buyers have signed contracts on 72 of the homes, including 11 that have gone to settlement.

"Since its inception, the HarborView project has been a contentious issue for a lot of residents because of the elevations and because of how the town homes built a wall along Key Highway," said Keith Losoya, a past president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "The pier homes steered away from that, opening up the view corridors and not building a wall, but that massing still takes away what was once a water view."

The developer, HarborView Properties Development Co., has shifted to a lower-density plan over the years in response to community concerns, said Frank Wise, a vice president.

The original plan called for six towers that could rise up to 290 feet - the height of the first 27-story tower at 100 HarborView Drive - as part of a plan for up to 1,590 residences, shops, offices and a marina.

Instead of three of those towers, the developers built 77 townhouses - the Towns at HarborView, selling at resale for $700,000 to $1.5 million - and the 164-unit Pierside Apartments.

"A lot of those changes occurred in response to the community and trying to be sensitive to the community," Wise said.

But some contend the city ignored the recommendations of Federal Hill neighborhood leaders.

"There was a feeling of resignation that the city was always going to support them against the wishes of the community," said Dick Leitch, president of the neighborhood association in the late 1980s.

By the time he moved from Federal Hill three years ago, "a certain indifference had grown," he said. "That whole area was a mature community, and there was a different attitude about development, that it wasn't as important an issue to preserve views and vistas."

Wise, a longtime HarborView Properties official, said Swirnow's vision was always to transform an industrial site into a community with a mix of uses and housing types, not to create a self-contained, or walled-off development. Swirnow could not be reached yesterday.

"It was really designed to be part of Baltimore," Wise said. "The beacon on top of the first tower, which shields cooling equipment, was designed as a beacon to beckon people back to Baltimore."

That was a tall order in 1986, when Swirnow and a partner bought the property at auction for $24.4 million. Swirnow, who had been a developer of single-family homes in Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties in the 1960s and 1970s, had formed a flooring system company in the early 1970s, now called Swirnow Building Systems and operated by Swirnow's son.

By the time Swirnow and his partner bought the former shipyard, the city was losing residents and high-rise condominiums had not caught on in a big way in Baltimore.

The developers pushed ahead despite community opposition and the uncertain market, considering the project to be a long-term venture. Swirnow and his partner parted ways, and Parkway Holdings Ltd., then a $1.5 billion conglomerate based in Singapore, came on board. But by 1997, 39 of the 252 condominiums had sold at prices that from $190,000 to $1.5 million for the penthouse.

In 1998, a Philadelphia-based investment fund replaced Parkway as partner.

Several years later, the housing boom ignited values in Baltimore and demand for housing on or near the waterfront soared.

All of 100 HarborView Drive has been converted back to condominiums, and HarborView Properties is laying groundwork for a second tower to begin construction this year. The developers are taking reservations for the 17-story Pinnacle, which will have 45 to 60 units priced at up to $3 million.

The project is just one of many upscale condominium projects nearing completion or under way downtown, including the Ritz Carlton Residences adjacent to HarborView on Key Highway.

"The rest of downtown has caught up," Wise said. "HarborView was ... ahead of its time in some respects."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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