Plan for Hilton downtown gets city panel's OK

Sun Staff

The most famous view in Baltimore - the cityscape seen from Camden Yards - appears likely to change soon with the construction of a $200 million convention anchor hotel just north of the stadium.

Nearly a year after a splashy City Hall announcement by Black Entertainment Television mogul Robert L. Johnson that he wanted to build a headquarters hotel in Baltimore, the city's quasi-public development agency has endorsed his development team's proposal over two others that have since applied for the job.

The hotel is viewed by city leaders and meeting experts as an urgently needed resource to help build business at Baltimore's economically lagging convention center, which was expanded recently at a cost of $151 million.

A new 750-room Hilton is expected to provide the large blocks of reserved rooms and physical proximity to the convention center that planners say are necessary to book large meetings.

The development is also expected to provide 200,000 square feet of office space to serve as a home for Catholic Relief Services, an international organization that helps deal with famine, disease and the aftermath of war around the globe.

"The process has been long," M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said in a news conference yesterday. "We think it's been thorough. We think it's been objective and fair."

Representatives of one of the losing teams expressed concerns earlier this week that they were "going up against a stacked deck" that favored Johnson.

The BDC board met behind closed doors for 3 1/2 hours Thursday and voted 10-0 in favor of the development team that partners Johnson's RLJ Development LLC with Quadrangle Development Corp. of Washington.

The matter went to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley late Thursday night for his review and final action, which would award an exclusive negotiating priority.

"We're delighted to have been recommended by the BDC board," said Thomas J. Baltimore Jr., president of RLJ Development. "We look forward to moving this process forward, pending a final decision by the mayor."

While O'Malley's eventual acceptance of the BDC-endorsed plan appears likely, the mayor was keeping his options open yesterday.

"This is the beginning of a very, very long process," said Raquel Guillory, the mayor's press secretary. "What he's going to do is to thoroughly review the BDC recommendation. This is a major, multimillion dollar project, and he's going to make sure that any deal makes sense for the citizens of Baltimore as well as the business people involved."

RLJ president Baltimore said he expects the hotel to be completed by 2007 at the latest. Brodie confirmed reports that the hotel would be financed with tax-exempt bonds and owned by the city.

"It's not that people have turned to public financing because it's easy or there's no risk, but because private financing has dried up," Brodie said. The BDC board, in agreement with the BDC advisory panel, concluded that the three development teams had submitted no viable private ownership/private financing proposals, he said.

'Four good proposals'

Some BDC board members acknowledged that they walked into the meeting Thursday favoring the locally led Believe Team - which submitted two proposals, including an alternate site on Conway Street - but then changed their minds during the discussion, according to Board Chairman Arnold Williams.

"There were four good proposals, and then as you begin to dissect the proposals, the RLJ proposal just kept rising to the top," he said. "It was convention-friendly."

The board discussion included concerns over whether the alternate Conway Street site provided enough space for a headquarters hotel, sources close to the discussions said.

But David W. Beer, a partner in Brennan Beer Gorman Monk, said space at the Conway Street site was more than adequate.

"This is about as grand a hotel in its design as we've worked on, and we've worked on hundreds," said Beer, whose firm was brought in to work with the Believe Team. "This one would have offered a water view from almost half its rooms."

Three members of the 15-member BDC board were absent from the meeting and two others recused themselves from the vote, citing potential conflicts of interest. The BDC staff did not make a recommendation before the meeting to avoid the appearance of bias, since they market the city and had marketed it to Johnson, Brodie said.

An unusual process

The selection process has been troubled by controversy because of its secret nature, conducted almost entirely out of public view, and for the unusual twists and turns the submission of proposals took as developers were asked to go back to the drawing board on several issues.

Well into the review process, BDC asked developers to rework their proposals to include office space for Catholic Relief Services and to provide a plan for public financing and ownership.

Critics also have questioned whether the 750 rooms for the hotel requested by BDC will be adequate, particularly in light of a consultant's study that said a new headquarters hotel should have a minimum of 800 rooms.

Although Brodie has said that there will be plenty of time for public input once a single developer has been named, critics note that many key decisions already will have been made.

"It's impossible to know if the Johnson hotel proposal or any of the others will meet the needs of the city for a convention center hotel," Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said yesterday. "Without an open process, we'll never know."

The front-runner

As proposed, the Johnson/Quadrangle hotel has a 25,000-square-foot grand ballroom and nearly 62,000 square feet of meeting space. It features a diagonal plaza running from Pratt Street and opening to a Camden Street plaza, which will be paved and landscaped. An elevated all-weather walkway will cross Eutaw and Howard streets, connecting the hotel development's two buildings with the convention center. There will be 1,000 underground parking spaces, and restaurants and retail space at street level.

The hotel plan provides for an additional 250 hotel rooms in a possible second phase.

Brodie said he thinks that the Johnson/Quadrangle proposal has protected the views from Camden Yards, one concern of critics.

"[Camden Yards] is a very powerful piece of architecture in and of itself," he said. "It's not easily overshadowed. We think this design has been sensitive to Camden Yards."

The Johnson/Quadrangle team has been perceived as the front-runner from the beginning because it, at least initially, had O'Malley's blessing. That team even received the BDC's help in putting together the proposal.

The other teams

Widely considered to be the runner-up was the Believe Team, which includes local businessman Otis Warren; Willard Hackerman, head of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. who controls the Sheraton Inner Harbor and a neighboring parking lot; and Baltimore architect Peter Fillat, who designed the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel.

That team's partners include Beer's firm, BBGM, hotel designers whose Peninsula Bangkok was rated the No. 1 hotel in the world by Travel & Leisure in August. Another partner, Garfield-Traub, also is an experienced developer of headquarters hotels.

The third team is headed by Portman Holdings LP of Atlanta in partnership with Treyball Development Inc., a Beverly Hills, Calif., real estate company headed by actor Will Smith and his brother Harry.

That team drew the least enthusiasm from the BDC advisory panel, officials said.

The team had raised concerns about the major design changes that BDC required late in the selection process.

Norris, the UMBC professor, says whatever decision is made will have long-term implications.

"Since it's going to include significant public financing, this is a really big matter," he said. "This is a critical decision, and if it's made wrong, the city lives with it for 40 years."

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