Is Baltimore spending $305 million to build a downtown hotel or a prison?
That was the question raised this month by members of Baltimore's Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel when they saw the latest plans for a 752-room, publicly financed Convention Center hotel, scheduled to rise on two city blocks north of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"You're at a ballgame, and you're looking at an almost prisonlike structure," said panel member Deborah K. Dietsch. "There are tones of gray and metal. ... It's a little too severe."
"I think it's gotten worse" than earlier designs, said city Planning Director Otis Rolley III, another panel member. "The tower, it just screams of a box, a prison box. ... We need to try harder."
"It's still very diagrammatic and conceptual," added panel member Mark Cameron. "I don't feel that it's a piece of architecture yet."
At the end of the presentation, the panel voted to withhold approval of the hotel design and suggested a "working session of sufficient duration" in the offices of the architect, RTKL Associates, to review alternatives. That meeting will take place Sept. 6.
The rejection of RTKL's latest design represents a setback for supporters of the hotel, just as they are poised to receive funding approval for it.
Baltimore's City Council voted 9-6 this month to approve legislation that will enable the hotel to be constructed with public financing by 2008 on city-owned property bounded by Pratt, Howard, Camden and Paca streets. A final council vote will be taken next month.
If the council gives final approval, as expected, the hotel will be the most expensive construction project the city has ever undertaken. City redevelopment officials argue that the hotel will help increase bookings at the Convention Center and that public funding is needed because the city has received no acceptable proposals from groups willing to use private funds.
Advocates for first-rate design say the city is in a position to insist on quality architecture because the city owns the land and is providing the financing. They say the hotel will be a key link between Camden Yards and the west-side renewal area downtown and needs to be a gateway to both. They also note that the hotel will be visible from the seats at Oriole Park and should create a positive impression to anyone who sees it from that vantage point.
"This is the most important project" in the planning stages for downtown's west side, said Ronald Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance, a nonprofit group. "It's going to dominate the landscape."
The design calls for the bulk of the hotel, including all the guest rooms and an upper-level "sky lounge," to rise in the block bounded by Pratt, Eutaw, Camden and Paca streets. The block to the east would contain a low-rise "junior ballroom" and other meeting spaces. It would be linked to the Convention Center by a pedestrian footbridge spanning Howard Street.
The tower containing the guest rooms would be L-shaped and would rise atop a brick-clad base. One leg of the L would run along Pratt Street and the other leg would run along Eutaw Street. RTKL proposed that the building's skin be developed with a two-tone pattern that created a "field" and rectangles within the field.
The review panel objected to several aspects of RTKL's design, including the tower facades, the size of the pedestrian bridges and the roof of the junior ballroom.
The panel said in its minutes that "the patterning of the [tower] facades is visually disturbing and the placement of many window openings outside the 'field' adds to the feeling of disorder." In addition, it said, "the proposed metal skin is not totally convincing and warmer colors are suggested."
Rolley said the surface patterning reminded him of the two-tone paint job on the smaller Brookshire Suites Hotel at Lombard and Calvert streets, "which I hate with every ounce of my being."
"There's really a need to look at the patterning here and realize that you have an opportunity to create a gateway to Baltimore," panel member Mario L. Schack told architects Raymond Peloquin and Dan Freed.
The panel urged that the architects minimize and simplify the footbridges and other structures spanning Eutaw and Howard streets so they don't block more views or cover more ground than necessary.
Cameron said he wanted more of a sense that the Eutaw Street corridor and the Pratt Street side were part of the public realm, not the exclusive domain of a private hotel.
"It feels like you're walking on hotel property versus walking along Pratt Street," he said.
Panel members also suggested animating the Pratt Street side with retail space at street level, and they said the roof of the junior ballroom needed more study.
Kreitner, who was asked to address the architects and review panel because of his role in the west-side renewal efforts, said he is concerned that the hotel would block key views of Camden Station and the B&O Warehouse.
"You have eliminated most of the vistas of Camden Station" from Pratt Street, he told the architects. "We need to do everything we can to make this an interesting view and to honor the station."
Kirby Fowler, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, said he didn't like the way the overhead "connectors" would enclose Eutaw Street and block views down it.
"You want to keep that view corridor the way it is today as much as possible," he said. "I understand that you have to connect the buildings, but it could be done in a much more unobtrusive way."
"It's a difficult assignment," Millspaugh said. "It has to be both functionally successful and aesthetically spectacular. Otherwise, it's not going to attract all the people it needs to attract in order to be successful."
The building will be operated as a Hilton. M. J. "Jay" Brodie, who heads the Baltimore Development Corp., told the panel that the city wants to break ground by the end of this year.
"We want to move forward in a professional way that gives us a building we are proud of when we're finished," said Brodie, speaking for the city and the design team.
Rolley, who has become a leading voice for good design in Baltimore, said he believes the city has an obligation to make the hotel better. "We can't go backwards," he said. "Not for $305 million."