The fall of 1990 hardly seems an ideal time to start selling luxury high-rise condominiums on Baltimore's waterfront. With the crisis in the Middle East, the sluggish economy back home and past resistance to high-rise housing locally, it may seem more like sheer madness.

But if anyone is going to roll the dice and come up a winner, the developers of the HarborView condominiums in South Baltimore appear to have a shot.

With today's grand opening of a $5 million sales center and yacht club at 500 HarborView Drive, the public is going to see a high-powered, high-tech marketing effort that surpasses the debuts of just about any other local project in recent years -- for sheer chutzpah if nothing else.

Beneath the marketing razzmatazz, though, is a well-thought-out community that ranks among the better developments unveiled so far for Baltimore and Maryland in the 1990s.

To be sure, HarborView has been criticized from the start for being too large for its site -- both in terms of building heights and density. Most recently South Baltimore residents have been worried about a giant "medical proposed by the same developers for the north end of their 42-acre property -- and justifiably so.

But given the building program approved by the Baltimore City Council -- up to 1,590 residences, plus shops, offices and a marina -- the architectural solution is first-rate. The development team headed by Richard Swirnow of Baltimore and Parkway Holdings Inc. of Singapore were determined not to repeat the mistakes of past waterfront projects, and they had both the land and the design expertise to do the job right.

Today's opening marks the first chance for the general public to see their brave new vision of Baltimore as livable city, a timely theme for city officials who are seeking new ways to make it just that. Not since Coldspring was unveiled in the 1970s has there been such an elaborate display of a "new town in town" as they are presenting for the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. shipyard on Key Highway. Their models, renderings and computerized video displays are likely to be of interest not only to those in the market for waterfront housing, but to anyone who cares about the

changing harbor skyline and future of South Baltimore.

The secret to the design success of HarborView is in the way the architects appealed to Baltimore's taste for anything new that bears a touch of the old.

From the first building on, the design team borrowed from the past to create a sense of place, then added modern amenities to make their buildings marketable to a wide range of buyers.

The approach is not unlike the Maryland Stadium Authority's plan to build an old-fashioned ballpark for the Orioles in Camden Yards, yet add the skyboxes and other creature comforts fans have come to expect. What makes HarborView so compelling is the creativity with which its designers responded to marketing requirements while also giving the buildings a distinctive identity with a Baltimore flavor.

The design team is headed by Columbia Design Collective, with Baltimore native Richard Burns as principal-in-charge. Other architects include Vlastimil Koubek of Washington, Sasaki Associates of Watertown, Mass., and Swanke Hayden Connell of New York. M. Paul Friedberg and Partners of New York are the landscape architects.

The idea of borrowing from the past is exemplified first in the sales pavilion and yacht club at the head of a 900-foot pier left over from the shipyard. From a distance, the three-story building has the feel of a quaint little boat club or cottage. Close up, however, one discovers that it is quite a large building, with room for a restaurant and dockmaster's office as well as the sales center above.

Mr. Burns took cues from the works of turn-of-the-century architects such as Charles Rennie McIntosh and Baille Scott to create a building that evokes familiar Baltimore images, including the stucco-clad houses of Roland Park and the pitched roof and rusticated base of the Maryland Club.

As built, the pavilion shows evidence of more than a few last-minute design changes, including one-way metal stairs on the east side that throw off its symmetry and small upper-level windows that seem out of proportion with the rest of the building. Still, it succeeds in setting an architectural tone that is at once fresh and new, yet also quite familiar and comfortable -- exactly what the entire project tries to be.

The 254-unit first tower, called 100 HarborView Drive, also comes across as a blend of old and new. Planned to rise 27 stories on the eastern end of a dock that juts into the harbor, it has a highly sculpted form and detailing that recall the grandeur and permanence of apartment buildings constructed before World War II.

Containing residences priced from $129,000 to $1.25 million, the tower was conceived as three buildings in one, with the least expensive "marina" residences on floors 2 to 13, more expensive skyline" homes on floors 14 to 23, and the luxurious penthouses on floors 24 to 27. The exterior expresses those divisions with a bottom, middle and top articulated by cornices, setbacks and other details that break down the apparent scale of the tower while imparting the desired "aura of history." The architects chose a buff-colored brick, almost peach in tone, that is lighter and warmer than most of the brick used on buildings downtown. It should look striking against the water.

The building is further broken up vertically, again to reflect the internal layout. Though it is not, perhaps, apparent to the casual observer, it actually consists of an east tower and a west tower, each with its own elevator banks. The division results in fewer residences per elevator lobby and more privacy for residents inside. Atop the easternmost "tower" is a three-story tall, eight-sided beacon that will be lit from within at night, turning the building into a lighthouse. Designed to conceal rooftop mechanical equipment, it is one of the tower's best features, with flying buttresses and a vaguely industrial air that seem entirely appropriate for a harbor site across from the red neon Domino sugar sign.

The beacon is an example of the extent to which the architects conjured up images from the past and reinterpreted them for the future. This is not a slick, pristine, modern building in the way Highfield House is on Charles Street. This is a rugged, assertive, almost brazen building, not so much handsome as heroic. Its architecture says: "I am the home for the Masters of the Universe. When you live here, you have arrived." And that is what it's all about.

Public spaces and individual floor layouts are exceptionally well handled, too. The designers placed a strong emphasis on flexibility and elimination of wasted space. In many of the 30 different floor plans they also made extensive use of diagonal walls to break down the potential boxiness of the units and maximize views to the harbor.

Beyond the first tower, plans call for up to five more towers rising from 20 to 30 stories in height, plus pier housing, town houses overlooking the water and mid-rises and offices along Key Highway.

One disappointment of the otherwise excellent site model in the sales center is that it does not show the design of a boatel and office complex proposed for the south end of the property or give any indication of possible massing for the medical mart discussed for the north end. Both are potentially controversial, and it would be in keeping with the spirit of openness and disclosure if the developers unveiled plans for both sites as soon as possible to give buyers some idea what they might be seeing from their windows.

Even without those elements, the model succeeds in conveying the sheer magnitude of the project -- and the architectural issues yet to be resolved. Even assuming that the area will be able to absorb any traffic congestion and parking demand generated by the new construction, this is a project in which the danger is in having too much of a good thing. If the community is built out as densely as the city's master plan permits, the visual effect could be somewhat akin to standing in a room full of tall people all wearing madras shirts. One or two is fine, but too many is Plaid City.

The trick for the architects will be finding a way to design all of these towers so they won't seem boringly similar or oppressively massive. Mr. Burns' approach has been to create a family of buildings -- not clones of each other, but not too different either. At the suggestion of the city's Design Advisory Panel, he also made the first tower more of a "foreground building" and thought of some of the others as more "background" in nature. Should HarborView be the success its developers hope, refining

those notions will be a key challenge in the years to come.


For now, HarborView is shaping up as the last, best hope fohigh-rise housing to succeed near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, perhaps for the rest of this century.

There has been much discussion about the need to create more housing to add the residential dimension that will make downtown Baltimore active 24 hours a day. At the same time, there has been considerable hand-wringing about the fact that Inner Harbor condominiums have not sold well in the past.

HarborView represents an important response to both of those issues because it is in many respects the first high rise near the Inner Harbor that has the ability to appeal to a wide range of people rather than any narrow segment of the market. Two previous projects, Harbor Court and Scarlett Place, each had serious flaws that reduced their appeal to prospective buyers. -- HarborView's debut gives the market watchers a chance to see how a truly outstanding project near the Inner Harbor is received.

Does that mean HarborView will be an instant success? From a standpoint of housing costs or condo fees or city taxes, the buyers themselves must decide if the price is right. And clearly, high-rise urban living is not for everyone. But in terms of design, the architectural team behind HarborView has at least given the developers a fighting chance to do what no other project has done and lure people back to the city by the hundreds. For once, by Jove, they got it right.

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