Canton tower plan gets a rise out of nearby developer

Architecture column

May 07, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun Architecture Critic

In Baltimore development, it doesn't necessarily pay to be a pioneer.

That's one message that came out of a recent public hearing about the newest high rise proposed for Baltimore's waterfront, a 23-story tower in Canton called the Icon.

The city planning commission supports a proposal from a local developer that wants to build a $75 million, 260-foot-tall residential tower on the Lighthouse Point property, off the 2700 block of Boston St.

But first the developer, Cignal Corp. of Timonium, needs the city to amend an urban renewal plan and remove a height limit for the property that currently permits no buildings taller than 72 feet.

The proposed high rise would offer panoramic views of downtown and the harbor. It could bring more people to live and shop in the city, generate construction jobs and increase the tax base.

But it could also be detrimental to one of the earlier residential projects in Canton, the Tindeco Wharf apartments next door, by blocking sunlight and harbor views and limiting the potential for additional construction there.

It raises questions about whether the city should change development rules to help one property owner if the changes come at the expense of another owner, especially if the party that's adversely affected was there first.

Tindeco was "a pioneering investment" in its time, said Al Barry, a local planning consultant who represents Tindeco's owner, Brandywine Construction and Management of Philadelphia.

"Depending on where they put [the tower], it would eliminate a lot of the water views" from Tindeco, Barry said. "There's clearly an economic impact."

The $33 million, 240-unit Tindeco Wharf project opened in 1986 inside the old Tin Decorating Company of America plant at 2809 Boston St. It was one of the first examples of industrial properties being recycled for housing on Baltimore's waterfront.

At the time, Tindeco's neighbor to the west was the former J.S. Young Licorice Co. property, which was being turned into a marina and boat storage facility called Lighthouse Point. The city changed zoning to permit housing and retail space that would rise up to 72 feet, to supplement the marina. Those height and density restrictions provided breathing space around Tindeco that made it worth rehabbing for loft apartments.

Twenty years later, Canton is a hot neighborhood. Cignal has taken over as the lead developer of Lighthouse Point. The administration of former Mayor Martin O'Malley encouraged Cignal to think about building a residential tower west of Tindeco. Cignal responded with plans for a high rise that could very well bring more people to Canton, but also threatens to make Tindeco a less attractive place to live.

In addition, Brandywine owns a parking lot between Tindeco and the Icon site and had been contemplating a second phase that could add 49 to 91 residences, while staying within the 72-foot height limit. A 23-story tower, with five parking levels at the base, would make residences on the Tindeco lot unmarketable, according to Brandywine president Adam Kauffman. "I don't believe I could market 49 townhouses next to a garage that was taller than the townhouses," he said.

Brandywine knew there was a chance more could be built at Lighthouse Point, Kauffman said. "But we thought that if something did get built, it would have to play by the same rules for height and density that we had to play by. We assumed ... it would be compatible," he said.

"If the city is focusing on generating more taxes [by supporting the Icon project], they are taking another piece of land and rendering it useless," he said.

The Icon is not approved yet. Baltimore's current mayor, Sheila Dixon, is taking another look at it. The council's land-use committee postponed its vote about changing the height limit after the city's transportation department asked for more time to study the tower's effect on area traffic.

While that study is under way, the city ought to do even more to address the issue. Baltimore's planning department could try to get Brandywine and Cignal together to see if they can come up with a development plan that suits them both, as well as the community at large. One option would be to see if they could combine the available land at Lighthouse Point and Tindeco to create one joint development that wouldn't overwhelm the area.

To its credit, the planning department tried this before, without success. With the council vote delayed, planners have another chance.

Kauffman said he's encouraged by Dixon's stance, but worried that the tower will come up again. "We would really like a resolution to this issue, not just have it subside for several months and then come back," he said. "We're just looking for equitable treatment."

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