Development of HarborView inspires activism among neighbors

Complaints about builder rouse Federal Hill residents


Paul Quinn wasn't always one of them.

Not long ago, he'd fidget at his Federal Hill neighborhood meetings while the usual suspects - "those people," he calls them - went on and on and on, all up in arms that developers were violating this, trying to get away with that.

"At meetings I used to listen to these people and think, `Oh my God ... who cares?" says Quinn, who moved to the neighborhood from Alabama three years ago.

Not anymore.

He changed his mind these past few weeks, watching a few of "those people," longtime community activists, persuade Baltimore officials - after tireless months of trying - that a cluster of pricey homes rising on the Inner Harbor exceeded height limits by a few feet.

Now Quinn and more than a few of his neighbors - the once apathetic or jaded or uninformed - are energized, if not downright mobilized. They're writing letters to city officials, training video cameras on construction sites and phoning in concerns to anyone who'll listen.

And, overwhelmingly, all these newly watchful eyes are staring in one direction, at HarborView. The development company has brought hundreds of pricey homes to the South Baltimore waterfront since the early 1990s, but while doing so, has also built a reputation in the community for bending city rules.

"It really raised our consciousness," says Quinn, the recently named president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "It made a believer out of me."

Last month the city's housing commissioner issued a stop-work order for the Pier Homes at HarborView because the million-dollar homes - some already occupied, many more under construction - exceed the 58-foot limit because of roof-top structures.

Officials forced developer Richard A. Swirnow to adjust the structures in the unfinished homes. They are supposed to house only mechanical equipment, not "penthouse" wet bars like Swirnow advertised.

Though Swirnow ignored the stop-work order for two days, and the city decided not to penalize him for that or the 30 finished homes that stand too tall, Federal Hill residents are feeling a new belief in the system - and a reinvigorated distrust for the development.

"It's awakened a sleeping giant," says City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore. "The whole community is on him now."

HarborView officials have repeatedly insisted that there is nothing out of compliance with the project and that they're cooperating with the city's height adjustments in an attempt to be agreeable.

As for the community's vote of no confidence, HarborView Vice President Frank Wise calls it misplaced animosity that he and Swirnow can do nothing about.

"I can't really control what they think. Only what we do. And that's the best possible job to bring life back to the city," Wise says. "We try to be in compliance. It's in no one's best interest to try to take advantage."

Two Federal Hill activists, retired Sun editor James S. Keat and Paul Robinson, the president of a chain of small radio stations, spent the better part of the last year leading an effort to show city planning and housing officials that the Pier Homes were too tall.

Now others, such as Quinn, the sales manager for an equipment company, have made watching HarborView their new part-time job.

Last week Quinn went down to the water and stared at the Pier Homes. He went to Cross Street Market and polled folks about the height situation. He wrote a letter to City Hall.

"There is always a threat to the historic fabric of Federal Hill ... from irresponsible development on the fringes of [the] neighborhood," he says. "The only thing we really have to protect ourselves against that threat is our zoning ordinances. And this developer outright ignores parts of the zoning ordinance that don't suit him. It's really pretty frightening."

Troy Powers, an attorney who lives on Covington Street in a townhouse that faces HarborView, has sensed people's newfound empowerment, too.

"All of a sudden my neighbors who were kind of dormant are all of a sudden like, `Hey, what are they doing over there?'"

Powers isn't new to being a thorn in the developer's side. He has complained about several issues, including construction dirt wafting across Key Highway and blanketing his car and porch, HarborView's winning city development incentives and - his special favorite - construction that starts before the regulation 7 a.m.

Being awakened too early, too often, by clanks and whistles at the Pier Home construction site drove Powers this year to send what he calls "a harsh, sarcastic, profanity-laden letter" to HarborView officials, with copies going to the mayor, a few city council members and most community association leaders in his area.

In May, when Powers ran outside with his video camera to catch the HarborView crews working early again, it resulted in the city issuing Swirnow a $1,000 fine.

"The tension, anger and disenchantment have just risen to a boiling point," Powers says.

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