The Baltimore Planning Commission gave its blessing last night to a waterfront high-rise proposed in Canton -- a 23-story condominium/retail project that has alarmed community leaders who fear the tower will obstruct harbor views and bring traffic and overdevelopment to the thriving neighborhood.

The 4-1 vote endorsing the plan came at a crowded public meeting in the city planning office, where commission members and city planners said the Icon tower would expand Baltimore's tax base as a waterfront destination that could promote citywide economic development. The vote included approval of a master plan for Canton's Boston-Lakewood section, amending height restrictions and development limits for the waterfront site.

Though absent from the meeting, City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Canton, and Mayor Sheila Dixon sent messages of opposition to the major land-use amendments that Dixon had introduced in her last days as City Council president.

"We were encouraged to think big, to come up with something that would really complete the transformation of the Lighthouse Point site," said Marco Greenberg, vice president of Cignal Corp., the tower's developer. "The goals of the Boston-Lakewood planning process became the goals of this project."

The 240-foot glassy tower would spring up on what is now a Lighthouse Point parking lot, creating 160 condos on top of a five-story parking garage and about 30,000 square feet of Main Street-like retail space for shops and restaurants.

No additional office space would be created at Lighthouse Point, a factor that would limit the influx of traffic on Boston Street, city planners said.

The amendments would also permit Cignal Corp. to widen the waterfront promenade by 10 feet in front of the tower.

The recommendations -- which need City Council approval -- would grant Cignal what is called a "major amendment" to Lighthouse Point's "planned unit development." That would allow the company to build more than the city had originally allotted to the site's original developer in the 1980s.

For nearly two years, longtime Canton residents have decried the proposed tower as a "sore thumb." It would violate historic development plans, obscure waterfront views and worsen the heavy traffic of Boston Street, they said. They also wondered whether condominiums would sell in a cooling housing market.

"I think the city planning department has failed us," said Pat Gillease, a Canton Square resident since 1987 and president of her homeowners' association. "I've yet to see anything in writing to acknowledge our concerns. They've stacked the deck against the homeowners."

The public outcry prompted Cignal Corp. to scale back its plans, cutting out a 150-room hotel and townhouses, and reducing the tower's originally proposed height by 55 feet.

But Icon fans outnumbered opponents at the commission meeting. Young professionals crave more waterfront development there, said Dana Ellenberger, 25, a structural engineer trying to purchase a rowhouse in Canton.

Baltimore needs more of these visual markers to truly restore its place among the great cities, said Leigh Ratiner, a resident and president of the Northshore at Canton townhouse community.

"It is a city, not Canton, a blighted city on the verge of a Renaissance," Ratiner told the city officials. "And that city will only gain respect through development of a skyline. From Rio de Janeiro to Hong Kong, it's the skyline that makes the city."

The project would increase the city's tax base by nearly $2.5 million a year, said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, the council's commission representative.

Only commission member Shirley Williams, a Canton resident and deputy city public works director, voted in opposition.

City planners have recommended another major building on the Tindeco parking lot, which adjoins the Lighthouse Point site. But the Tindeco site's developers claimed unfair treatment last night, saying the commission was "spot zoning" for the Icon project.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com