HarborView plans reignite debate

If zoning change OK'd, tower could go up

June 04, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

After years of delay, Baltimore is moving to allow a prominent developer to build two residential towers along Key Highway - renewing community concerns about the future of the peninsula's vanishing waterfront.

If the City Council approves the zoning change, HarborView developer Richard A. Swirnow would be permitted to build a 26-story tower and could also proceed on an adjacent 17-story building west of the high-rise already on the site.

City officials say the proposed design is the best they have seen because it maintains better views of the water for surrounding residents and includes first-floor shopping to enliven Key Highway. Others argue City Hall is moving too fast to develop the site.

"The process is a runaway train," said City Council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore and who has fought against the project's expansion in the past. "As is, I do not support this."

Debate over the project is triggered partly by neighborhood concerns that development along Key Highway has blocked access to and views of the water. Others expressed a deep mistrust of Swirnow, who many say has reneged on past promises to the community.

Mayor Sheila Dixon jumped into the fray last year, withdrawing a similar zoning amendment favorable to HarborView and promising to provide public, open space near the development - an assurance she reiterated last week.

"We're not losing sight on that," Dixon said, arguing that opponents should not view the advancing zoning proposal as undermining her earlier promise. "I think the community is going to be extremely pleased."

The original design for the 26-story tower, Pinnacle II, was more monolithic and wide, obscuring more of the waterfront. The new design calls for the tower to be separated 100 feet from the 17-story Pinnacle I - which would appear to help maintain a sight line to the water. The plan also calls for retail along Key Highway to avoid the wall-like development that has taken place in the past.

Opponents note that current zoning already requires the towers to be spaced 100 feet apart.

"The development and the community groups are 100 percent in sync on the vision," said Frank Wise, vice president of HarborView Properties Development Company. "Frankly, I don't think anybody wants to see large waterfront spaces remain vacant forever."

But the relationship between HarborView and the community has soured over the years. Several neighborhood and elected leaders - including Del. Brian K. McHale and Sen. George W. Della Jr. - oppose the zoning amendment.

Paul W. Robinson, president of Federal Hill Neighborhood Association, said the city is giving the developer too much leeway by approving the zoning change. The city shouldn't move forward, he said, until it has finalized the plan for a park.

"The concern ... is that there is no actionable language which will legally bind the city, the landowner and the developers to [build] the vision that we've all so enthusiastically embraced," he said.

Trust between the community, the city and the developer was particularly damaged in 2006 when HarborView exceeded 58-foot height limits set by the city for the project's townhouses. The city initially issued a stop-work order and then a cease-and-desist order, but the excess height was allowed to stand on homes that had already been built.

In addition to the debate over the current zoning proposal, Dixon said the city continues to push for open space near HarborView. Design concepts include 30-foot promenades and a large, stylish park, potentially at the end of Webster Street.

Though much of the land along Key Highway is privately held, the city owns a Fire Department repair facility south of HarborView that Swirnow wants to develop. Dixon has said the city would sell that property only if open space is guaranteed. If that doesn't happen, she has said, then the facility itself could become a park.

Douglas McCoach, director of the Planning Department, said the next step is to amend zoning just south of the current HarborView development to give some legal muscle to the park concept. He said he expects the department to "dive into" that process in September.

The zoning amendment was approved by the city's Planning Commission on May 29 and is scheduled for a hearing by the City Council's Urban Affairs and Aging Committee tomorrow.

Voting on the measure this week could be complicated by City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector - who sits on both the Planning Commission and the five-member Urban Affairs committee - because she lives part time at HarborView with her boyfriend.

After the Planning Commission's voice vote, Spector called the Planning Department to make sure the record reflected her vote as an abstention. Asked whether she would abstain from future votes on the issue, Spector noted she did not own any property at HarborView and said she would seek an opinion from the city's ethics board as to whether she can vote.

Noting confidentially requirements contained in the city's ethics ordinance, Avery Aisenstark, who serves as staff to the ethics board, said he could not confirm or deny that such a request had been made.


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