UDARP panel gives qualified endorsement of Rotunda project

In a vote that fell short of unqualified support, the Baltimore City Urban Design and Architectural Review Panel gave its mixed blessing to the Rotunda mall redevelopment plans Thursday, Jan. 10 saying some of the design is boring and a missed opportunity.

In its third and final vote, UDARP panelists approved the plan with comments. That means the redeveloper, Hekemian & Co., must touch base with the board to show any changes made, before the proposal moves on to the city Planning Commission, probably next month. The panel gave its schematic approval to the Rotunda plans late last year.

Current redevelopment plans call for nearly 400 apartments, aimed at empty-nesters and young professionals. The project includes a five-story building with four stories of apartments and a lower level of additional retail. A parking garage with 1,100 spaces is also planned, as are several restaurants and a public plaza.

Hekemian's scaled-back, $100 million plan no longer calls for a hotel, a 22-story apartment building or underground parking. The developer hopes to break ground by May, with a completion target date in 2015.

Thursday's final vote was initially touch-and-go.

"You're so close, but you're not there," said panelist Emily Hotaling Eig. "It's not good enough yet for us to approve."

But panelist Gary Bowden said the plans were all right, if not as good as they might be.

"They've never been on the edge of greatness, but they've never been awful, either," Bowden said. "Are they so bad that they can't be approved? I'm inclined to approve it and let it go on to another stage" in the city's approval process.

But panelist Richard Burns said he didn't want to pass a redeveloped Rotunda in five years and wonder, "Why did I approve that?"

When told they could approve plans with comments, Bowden, Eig and Burns voted 3-0 for that option.

But they held their collective nose at several design elements, including apartment building facades that they deemed "monotonous."

And they agreed Hekemian is missing a chance to do more with the apartment building rooftop, either by creating penthouse apartments or using the rooftops as public space to take advantage of the view.

They even got down to nitty-gritty items, such as complaining that windows in the apartments aren't big enough.

"This is the final," Bowden said.

But Hekemian Senior Vice President Chris Bell told the panel the apartments would be rental properties, not condominiums for purchase.

"You just don't get more rent by making bigger windows," Bell argued. "Market rates set what we can do."

And he said that with 382 apartments in the building, "There's going to be some monotony."

Bell and land-use consultant Al Barry said they were pleased overall that the plans were approved and that they will try to revisit parts of the project that didn't measure up to the panel's satisfaction, such as trying to use the roof as public space, perhaps with rooftop decks.

But Barry said he doubted penthouse apartments are in the offing.

"If this were a condominium project, one might take fuller advantage," he said. "Then somebody would be paying an extra $150,000 for all that stuff."

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