The final piece of the Pratt Street puzzle began to fall into place Thursday when developers presented initial plans for a hotel and apartment tower on what is now a parking lot.
The developers of the high-profile Inner Harbor parcel said they hope to break ground in early 2016, but members of the city's design panel raised many questions about the project on one of downtown's most visible sites.
The proposal for 300 E. Pratt St. from InterPark LLC and Comstock Partners calls for a building that would rise at least 38 stories, or about 425 feet, making it among the tallest in the city. It would include a hotel with 200 rooms, about 400 apartments, at least 500 parking spaces and up to 20,000 square feet of retail space.
"We want to try to make this building distinctly Baltimorean … but at the same time, we want this building to be of the 21st century," said Gregory Luongo, a Washington-based vice president at HKS, the architecture firm working on the plans. "Future postcards of the City of Baltimore will feature this site."
The property, a narrow rectangle between Commerce and South streets used as a parking lot, has lain dormant since the News American building was razed in 1990. Under two previous owners, plans were floated for offices, hotels and condominiums but never realized.
InterPark, a Chicago-based developer and parking garage operator, bought the site last year for $16.4 million and requested bids from developers. Comstock, located in Reston, Va., started working with the firm last spring.
"It's been one of those missing teeth in the Inner Harbor for a long time" said Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel member Richard Burns. "I'm glad someone's actually going to develop this site."
Preliminary designs showed a tower sitting on a stacked base, with retail on the first floor on Pratt Street, followed by another layer of parking and hotel rooms facing the water.
But much of the plans remain undecided. Comstock said it has not settled on a look for the building, let alone materials for the structure. The ground floor will change because it is constrained by flood regulations enacted this year that require the developers to locate occupied space more than 6 feet above Pratt Street.
"As you can imagine, we're not thrilled about it," said Michael Nicolaus, senior vice president at HKS, which also worked on designs for the Legg Mason tower in Harbor East. "We've got some work to do to figure out how to solve the ground floor of the building."
Panel members raised concerns that the building — which as designed would devote much of its first floor to parking, service and mechanical uses with retail on Pratt Street — could contribute to the disconnect between the central business district and the Inner Harbor.
"You talked about Lombard Street and I agree with you that it's the backdoor to the Inner Harbor. … So I think what you're saying is it's in bad condition and we're going to make it even worse," Burns said.
Panel members also said they wanted the developer to think about ways to conceal the six-story parking garage rather than give it a waterfront view.
"It just seems that you put this all on the front, which is where the most interesting part of the building is," said panelist Judith Meany, who suggested HKS "reconceptualize" the building's relationship to Pratt Street. "Can't this go to the back of the site?"
The 300 E. Pratt St. proposal is the second downtown skyscraper to come before the city this year. Questar Properties received design approval earlier for a luxury apartment tower at 414 Light St. The Baltimore-area developer expects to begin construction by early next year.
Downtown Partnership President Kirby Fowler said he is encouraged by the Pratt Street project's progress so far, saying the team seems "a lot more energetic" than those in previous efforts.
"We've been waiting decades for this site to be developed. It's one of the last missing pieces of the Pratt Street experience," said Fowler, adding that he wants to see more developed plans. "Every photographer seems to take a shot of downtown looking towards this skyline so there's a great opportunity for some special architecture."
Comstock spokeswoman Maggie Parker declined to provide an estimated cost for the project, saying it was too early in the process.
The Pratt Street tower would be the firm's first development in Baltimore. Its previous projects include mixed-use developments close to stations on the Washington region's Silver Line.
Parker said the firm looked at the market to determine uses, noting the weak appetite for new office space nationwide. But the plans eventually could include a small number of offices, said Lawrence Bergner, the firm's senior vice president for development and construction.
InterPark is looking for a set number of parking spaces, Parker said. The development team has not yet selected an operator for the hotel, which Bergner said would likely be select service. Hilton Garden Inn and Courtyard by Marriott are examples of such hotels.
"We're always looking for anything edgy, urban, mixed use and transit-oriented and it kind of fit all of those models," said Parker, adding: "Nothing like a waterfront piece."