Altered plan for pier in Fells Pt.

Historic structure will be converted into a 130-room upscale hotel

October 26, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

The latest players in the long-suffering effort to redevelop Fells Point's landmark Recreation Pier intend to convert the historic structure into a chic hotel.

Developer J. Joseph Clarke, tossing aside his second partner in the project after only a couple of months, announced yesterday that he will be working with Baltimore's H&S Properties Inc., the company behind the thriving Harbor East complex.

The team has arranged to turn the property, nationally recognized since its use as a police station on NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street, into an Aloft hotel, a less expensive version of the W Hotel brand.

"It fits perfectly into the Fells Point area," said Michael S. Beatty, president of H&S. Clarke added: "It's very cutting-edge stuff in the lodging industry."

The hotel will have 130 rooms, typically renting for between $150 and $200 a night. All parking will be valet because no garage is planned for the site. And members of the public will be able to stroll the pier, which juts 500 feet into the harbor, for a water view as well as a glimpse of the docked tugboats.

The plan has changed substantially since the summer, when Clarke revealed plans to work with Baltimore's Focus Development on a 185-room, unnamed hotel with parking.

The city's effort to redevelop the pier dates back to 2002, and Fells Point residents - and Baltimore housing officials - have become impatient over the past four years with the lack of progress and Clarke's ever-changing cast of characters.

Originally the developer planned to work with New Orleans-based HRI Properties, but that firm bowed out after Hurricane Katrina.

Despite this latest change, city officials and community leaders praise the new partner and the new plan.

"We need a deal in hand by the end of the year that's feasible and practical," said city housing spokesman David Tillman. "But we don't think this current change is anything but good news."

Del. Peter A. Hammen, who presides over the Fells Point Task Force, said the hotel sounds great for the neighborhood and hopes the city takes steps to make sure work begins soon.

"There is a degree of frustration within the community because the project hasn't moved forward," Hammen said. "Yet once residents know the funding for the project is secure and that there's a definite time frame for construction, they'll feel much better."

Baltimore built the Recreation Pier in 1914 as a place for boats to store cargo. But it also became a community center, particularly the expansive second-floor ballroom. That space was adapted into a television studio for the Baltimore-based series, and it has been closed to the public ever since the show went off the air.

Four years ago, with the aging pier severely deteriorating and a lack of public funds available for repairs estimated at $3 million to $4 million, the city offered the site to developers.

Contenders for the job proposed a range of uses, including condos, offices and hotels. The city whittled the candidates down to two: Clarke, with his plan for a hotel with artist stalls underneath; and a team of H&S and Struever Bros Eccles & Rouse, which had an idea for an office building - and was open to other options, including reserving some of it for a public use, such as a museum.

The decision didn't come until 2004. Though the community was torn between the two developers, the city settled on Clarke, who won $3 million last year in state historic tax credits for the work.

Both Clarke and Beatty agree that the major challenge facing the project is repairing the pier.

Along the 500-foot pier, the half closest to shore is in good shape, but the other half is structurally unsound. Waves and currents over the past 90-some years have worn the concrete pilings thin.

Clarke estimates it will cost between $8 million and $9 million to stabilize the pier - a job he once thought would be expensive at $3 million.

"We're going to start as soon as we can. Winter's not a good time to start putting people into the water for repairs," he said.

Clarke hopes the hotel can open in 2008 - the target date for the first Aloft hotels to be opening around the country.

The hotel's design attempts to buck industry stereotypes, starting with its square rooms and extra-large bathrooms.

"It's all about more space, more light, taller ceilings and modern furnishings," Beatty said. "It's hip, cool style. I think without question you're going to get that younger Gen-X customer."

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