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Tower plan appears headed for defeat

A $75 million proposed waterfront tower that has riled Canton for nearly two years might become the first significant Baltimore project to die in recent memory.

The Icon, which goes before the City Council's land use committee this evening, faces unambiguous opposition from key city leaders, including the council member representing the Southeast Baltimore district and Mayor Sheila Dixon. With no overt support on the council and a thumbs-down from the mayor who must ultimately sign the bill, officials say the project is likely to die in committee.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said yesterday that things look so grim for the project that there was talk of canceling today's hearing.

"What is the value of even having the hearing if you know its going to be dead on arrival?" Specter said. "Recognizing that no matter what the committee would do, the mayor would not sign it."

Andy Frank, Baltimore's deputy mayor for development, said Dixon will not support the Icon because she shares the Canton community's concerns about how the tower might overload congested Boston Street.

"This project has shone a light on traffic and density in Southeast Baltimore, and it's an appropriate light," Frank said. "I have the same concerns the mayor has."

The Icon, a condominium and retail project, would rise about 260 feet, or 23 stories, from what is now a parking lot for the Lighthouse Point shopping center, a nondescript waterfront plaza anchored by a Blockbuster Video.

Before it can be built, the City Council must allow what is called a "major amendment" to Lighthouse Point's 1980s building plan so that the developers could put more on the property than what was originally allowed.

To build higher than 72 feet, the developers also need an amendment to Canton's urban renewal ordinance.

These changes have not only been endorsed by the city's Planning Department, but also by Baltimore's Planning Commission and its design review panel.

Despite the opposition from community and city leaders, the project's developers remain confident that the Icon will be built.

Marco Greenberg, vice president of the Timonium-based Cignal Corp., said the council should defer to city planners.

"The experts are recommending this thing, and I don't know how the administration can ignore the recommendation of city agencies," he said. "Ultimately [the project is] good for the neighborhood, and it's good for the city."

In the summer of 2005, Cignal began introducing the planned Icon to Canton's cluster of community associations, who greeted what was then a more ambitious proposal -- taller and with an adjoining hotel -- with skepticism.

One association after another declared the project overwhelming and too much building for the space.

That sentiment did not change -- even as Cignal scaled back its plans.

"I think there is a small but very vocal group in the community who just doesn't want to see anything built on the site," Greenberg said. "'Don't build anything' is not a compromise."

Nancy A. Braymer, a Canton Square resident and Icon opponent, insists the project is inappropriate for the neighborhood -- too tall and too dense.

"What positive justification has the developer and the Planning Department offered in support of this proposal?" she said. "The only rationale that has been articulated is that currently, the property is not being put to 'its highest and best use.' 'Highest' is not the same as 'best.'"

Braymer acknowledges that the city could use the $3.5 million a year in taxes Cignal says the Icon will deliver. But, she adds, it is not worth it.

"This economic justification is short-sighted," she said, "and does not consider the costs and benefits to the surrounding community and the city."

In the weeks leading up to today's hearing, lobbying by the community and the developers has -- in the words of City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who heads the land use committee -- been aggressive.

Teams of neighborhood association leaders have gone from one council member's office to another, just as the developer and its attorneys have. Cignal, its principal and its partners have also given thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Dixon, her predecessor, Martin O'Malley, and council members.

Both sides are expected to show up tonight with considerable representation. The hearing begins at 5 p.m. in the council chambers of City Hall.

To advance, the Icon needs four votes from the seven-member land use committee. In addition to Spector, three members --Canton's representative James B. Kraft, Mary Pat Clarke, and Kenneth N. Harris Sr. -- have stated their opposition.

Other committee members have told The Sun that they'll make up their minds after the hearing.

"I'm concerned about the notion of turning [the original building plan] on its head," Clarke said. "There were certain assurances there. All of a sudden, it's wide open to renegotiation, and I don't think that's healthy for stability."

Kraft, who has been opposed to the project almost from the beginning and refused late last year to sponsor the necessary bills -- leaving the job to Dixon -- said despite the developer's claim, he and the community are not opposed to seeing something built at Lighthouse Point -- just not the Icon.

"It's not a question of being anti-development. It's a question of this is the wrong project in the wrong place," he said, adding that city planners are wrong to endorse it. "It's just a bad proposal."

With a number of intensive developments in the pipeline for Canton, each expected to put pressure on streets, the mayor has asked the city's transportation department to list traffic abatement projects planned for the area, Frank said.

"We can't just look at the Icon -- it's an aggregate," he said.

Kraft thinks the rest of the council will join Dixon -- and him -- in defeating the Icon.

"It's not over till it's over," he said, "but I feel confident that the members of the committee are going to support the people in the community."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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