A skyline not in sync

Our view: Convention hotel features function over flash

May 04, 2008

The skyline of Baltimore is changing yet again. And whether your vantage point is Camden Yards, Federal Hill or Little Italy, not everyone is pleased with the view. A drive along Key Highway nowadays has the claustrophobic feel of a concrete canyon, the facades of new waterfront residences walling off the harbor. From Little Italy, the eye stumbles over a collection of apartment towers en route to the water. Then there's the constricted view from Camden Yards, a field of vision compromised by the imposing new convention center hotel.

The hotel is the latest economic development project that's design-challenged. What's on the ground so far lacks the personality of the neighboring convention center and popular ballpark. Their contributions to the downtown aesthetic range from sleek contemporary to beloved classic. Neither can be said of the 750-room hotel, which is being built by the city to enhance and invigorate convention business in Baltimore. The hotel at the corner of Russell and Pratt streets is a wedge of brick topped by gray towers. And while the color of the brick was purposely chosen to match Camden Yards' exterior, the intention is lost to the casual observer, who feels acutely the building's mass.

Critics of the design must be whispering, "I told you so." There is little that makes it distinguished. In some ways, the hotel's form was captive to the city's insistence to build there. Development officials scoff at complaints, noting that the city's urban design and architectural review panel approved the plans. But the process doesn't establish design guidelines at the outset that developers must consider, which leaves the review panel with little to go on. Criticism may be premature - the hotel isn't yet finished - but the imperative for a project as large as this, located at the gateway to the city, should have been a design that excites and entices. The reason for this hotel and why this page supported it was to expand city convention business. Given the hotel's ho-hum design, its contribution to the city can only be measured in dollars and cents.

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