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Icon might come to a vote

Who among the hundreds of people who packed City Hall recently to debate the ever-divisive Icon tower proposal left satisfied?

Certainly not the developer, who hoped the $75 million high-rise he's pushed for two years would inch closer to approval.

Certainly not Canton activists, who wished the City Council committee would vote down the condominium plan they've fought since Day One.

But maybe the politicians, who, by not voting at all, seemed to sidestep a sticky issue with potential for repercussions in an election year.

The council's silence, however, appears to be backfiring. The developer and the Canton community - who seemingly agree on nothing else - are demanding a vote. Both sides want a final answer on the project that has weighed on the waterfront neighborhood for nearly two years.

As a result, a vote could come as soon as tomorrow, officials said late last week.

"It's a head-scratcher for us because it seems like there are people who just don't want the debate to happen," says Marco Greenberg, vice president of Cignal Corp., the Timonium-based firm behind the Icon. "It seems like there's been this effort to hold it back, to delay, to sit on it, and that's what's happening again.

"There's a little bit of gamesmanship being played."

Adds Nancy A. Braymer, a Canton Square resident and Icon opponent: "I think it's important that the elected officials make it absolutely clear what their position on this is."

The Icon faced steep odds going into the April 18 hearing before the council's land use committee. Not only did the councilman representing Canton oppose it, so did Mayor Sheila Dixon.

Dixon and Councilman James B. Kraft had repeatedly said they would follow Canton's lead on the Icon. In other words, if the people who would have to live near the tower didn't want it, they would support them.

The Icon's prospects were so bleak, committee members discussed canceling the hearing altogether. Instead, they just nixed the voting part - a long-favored political tactic that allows officials to essentially shelve unpopular legislation without having to go on the record.

But this time the council didn't just skip the vote - they announced that they were "delaying" it so the city's Transportation Department could finish a report on traffic problems in the southeastern part of town.

Cignal executives immediately cried foul. Why was their project getting held up when much bigger projects in Southeast Baltimore - the Legg Mason/Four Seasons towers, for one - were being whisked to approval?

Community activists were just as skeptical. They wondered if this "delay" meant the council would eventually approve the project.

With the entire council and the mayor running for re-election this year, both sides figured campaign politics were at play.

"For a politician to publicly support the project right now, they might lose votes. If they were to publicly oppose the project, they might lose votes," Greenberg said. "The only thing for them to do is nothing. Don't show leadership, just maintain the status quo."

Paul Robinson, a Federal Hill community activist who attended the hearing to support Canton, agreed. Without the election in the equation, he said, the council's inaction on the very-public Icon dispute makes little sense.

"It's either incredibly cynical or a brilliant political move," he said. "Maybe both. I'd like to meet the puppet master."

Andy Frank, Dixon's deputy mayor for development, brushed off the accusations. If anyone's playing games, he said, it's not the mayor.

"That kind of political calculus has not occurred," he said. "I think the mayor has made her position very clear. It's the council."

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 store.

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

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

Baltimore's Planning Department, Planning Commission and design review panel all endorsed the project, saying the city sorely needs denser development to keep the waterfront vibrant and to bolster the tax base.

Greenberg guesses that elected officials, Kraft in particular, figure they can score more votes by shelving the project than by approving it.

"[Kraft] gets the benefit of standing up - like [Boris] Yeltsin jumping on the tank," Greenberg said. "It's all about getting people votes rather than acting in a manner that's good for the long-term, good for the city."

Because he doesn't believe the city would allow the Icon to really die, Greenberg said he thinks the council will approve it later this year - after the election.

"I think after the primary, yeah," he said. "We're patient. ... We're not going anywhere. We've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this thing."

Kraft, however, says Greenberg's boss, Cignal principal Armando Cignarale, simply can't accept the probability that the Icon will not get built.

"Mr. Cignarale is obsessed with this project, and I think it really has come to the point where you cannot have a rational, logical discussion with him about the project," Kraft said. "The door is de facto closed."

Meanwhile, members of the council's land-use committee are apparently reconsidering the "delay" tactic. There's talk of putting the Icon bills back on the table for a vote as soon as this week.

A voting session was penciled in for 11:15 a.m. tomorrow, minutes before the council is scheduled to begin a day of budget hearings.

"We're killing it once and for all," said Kraft, who's on the committee. " ... Everybody knows the bill's dead. But if they want a formal burial, we'll give it a formal burial."

Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who heads the committee, said Cignal needs to rework the project, specifically make it smaller, so that Canton might accept it. If the developer doesn't want to try again, Reisinger said he'll likely call for a vote.

"If things don't change, we can vote," he said. "[Cignarale] leaves me and the committee with no recourse."

Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake feels the lack of action has left "the community being yanked in a thousand directions and the developer, too," said her spokesman Shaun E. Adamec.

Rawlings-Blake hopes the developer will pull the bills before tomorrow, Adamec added.

Sen. George W. Della Jr., whose district includes Baltimore's waterfront neighborhoods, including Canton, said voting on the bills is the only way to give people peace of mind.

"If you can believe what [Dixon] says, she's not signing [the bills]. We're wasting our time here. People are not comfortable with this project, and they're smart enough to realize some game is being played.

"Here's a way to clear it up once and for all: Pull the plug. Just pull the plug."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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