Builder, city near deal on heights

Developer defied stop-work order on harbor homes

June 24, 2006|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

Despite two days of defying a city order to stop construction, the developer of exclusive waterfront townhouses appeared ready late yesterday to shake hands with Baltimore officials on a plan to get the buildings, which were going up too tall, into compliance.

The apparent agreement capped two days of tense negotiations, which began in earnest Wednesday evening after the city ordered developer Richard A. Swirnow to stop construction on the Pier Homes at HarborView. The order was to remain in effect until Swirnow revised plans for the rest of the project - the bulk of which is still under construction.

Yesterday, even as Baltimore officials served the developer with a cease-and-desist letter, HarborView officials said they were willing to meet the city's demands.

Baltimore Planning Director Otis Rolley III on Thursday presented Swirnow with two options: Lower the homes to 58 feet or adjust the roof-top structures that make the homes 4 feet too tall - structures that are supposed to house only mechanical equipment but are instead billed by the developer as "penthouses" with optional wet bars.

HarborView Vice President Frank Wise said Swirnow was willing to lose the wet bars and trim 30 square feet to 55 square feet from the penthouses.

Deal in sight

"We put our architects to work making changes ... and came up with something everyone can live with," Wise said. "Obviously, we disagree that the original plans were in any way out of compliance."

Rolley said that he got HarborView's revised plans at 5 p.m. yesterday and that they looked good "at first blush."

"They were eager to do whatever it takes to meet our requirements," Rolley said in an e-mail message. "It appears that they did everything we asked them to do to bring the project into compliance, but I need to review [their plans] in detail."

The city's actions against HarborView came only after persistent complaints from a handful of Federal Hill activists who insisted that the million-dollar homes, being built on piers that jut into the Inner Harbor, were too tall.

James S. Keat, who first alerted city planning and housing officials and Mayor Martin O'Malley of the height problems last summer, said getting the unbuilt homes into compliance isn't enough - he wants something to be done about the 30 already in violation.

"HarborView deliberately built those structures, knowingly violated height limits and thought they'd get away with it," Keat said. "I don't think they should. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned."

Rolley said yesterday that he was not sure whether anything could be done about the homes already built.

Crews working

Even as HarborView officials and Rolley worked yesterday afternoon on a compromise, City Solicitor Ralph Tyler confirmed that a cease-and-desist order was on its way to Swirnow's office.

Though Wednesday's "immediate stop work order" prohibited the developer from continuing construction until he submitted "corrected plans for the construction of any additional rooftop enclosures," dozens of workers swarmed the site all day Thursday and yesterday.

"They never really stopped the work," said Heather Perkins, a real estate agent who recently moved into one of the Pier Homes. "They're out there working on the second pier right now."

Inspectors dispatched to the site yesterday discovered crews working and the cease-and-desist order was in the works within hours, said David Tillman, a spokesman for the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.

HarborView also was fined recently for violating a rule prohibiting construction before 7 a.m.; residents videotaped the crews with a camera that had a time-stamp option.

Paul Robinson, founder of Friends of Federal Hill, was not surprised that Swirnow defied the city's order.

"In my experience with this man, he is certainly not predictable. Or if he is predictable, it's that he's predictably defiant," Robinson said. "He's unrepentant, he's unremitting and he marches to his own drum."

Wise shrugged off questions about why HarborView ignored the order, calling the issue "irrelevant." More pertinent, he said, is HarborView's willingness to work with the city though "at no time were we ever outside what was required."

"The city has been very, very demanding, and we have accommodated," he said. "Not everyone is as reasonable as we are."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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