Little Italy boutique hotel plan wins city zoning approval

A development team planning to turn an industrial site in a corner of Little Italy into a high-end, seven-story boutique hotel won city zoning approval this week, although neighborhood residents appear divided on the project.

The group, called Hotelco LLC, consists of Samuel Polakoff of Rockville-based Cormony Development and Josh Neiman of Hybrid Development Group in Baltimore, and is hoping to consolidate six properties in the 400 block of S. Central Ave. for the construction of a hotel and restaurant just a few blocks from the upscale Harbor East area.

The project would include $25 million of privately funded capital improvements, developers said Tuesday. Once completed, they said, the hotel would employ about 75 people.

James Kraft, the city councilman who represents Little Italy, said the area surrounding the proposed hotel, particularly the Central Avenue corridor, is a historically industrial area that has seen little upkeep and would benefit from more focused economic development.

"It is really critical to make certain that that is an attractive entryway into Southeast Baltimore," Kraft said. "Anything we can do to clean it up and make it more attractive is going to be beneficial to everyone."

But neighbors and members of the Little Italy Community Organization were at odds over a provision of the zoning approval that allows the developers to provide fewer off-street parking spots than city code requires.

Deborah Tempera, who owns property on South Bond Street about four blocks from the site of the proposed hotel, testified at the zoning hearing that she was concerned that the hotel's staff and patrons would crowd already scarce parking spaces in the neighborhood.

"We are the next-door neighbors, and this has a big impact on us," Tempera said.

Although the community organization's president sent a letter to the zoning board expressing the group's support for the project with certain conditions, close to 20 members signed a petition saying they had not been told of the meeting at which the organization decided to throw its support behind the proposal.

Many of the petitioners expressed written opposition to any plan that would exempt the developers from providing required parking spaces.

The developers were granted a variance by the zoning board allowing them to provide fewer parking spaces than required by city code, although they are still responsible for providing around 50 to 60 spaces for hotel employees and patrons in nearby garages.

The site, at Central and Eastern avenues, has been the talk of development projects before. Its current owners, lawyer James P. O'Hare and developer Larry Silverstein, purchased the property from the truck equipment firm Fallsway Spring and Equipment Company in 2007 in hopes of establishing a mixed-use retail center anchored by a Walgreen's pharmacy. O'Hare said market conditions in 2008 put a stop to those plans, and Walgreen's eventually backed out of the contract.

Developers haven't said when they expect to start construction. At the hearing Tuesday, Polakoff said his group envisions an approximately 130-room, four- or five-star hotel that would attract business travelers, similar to boutique hotels in Philadelphia and Washington. Neiman referred all requests for comment on the proposal to Polakoff, who declined to discuss the proposal further. Stanley Fine, a lawyer for the group, did not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Hotelco contracted in September to purchase the property from O'Hare and Silverstein. According to the proposal Hotelco submitted to the zoning board, the old auto repair building would be adapted as the hotel's entry and lobby, while the bulk of the hotel would be constructed on vacant lots on the north of the site.