Critics skeptical about Convention Center hotel


A private developer's proposal to build a 1,000-room hotel over the expansion planned for Baltimore's Convention Center could make a difficult project even more complex -- and possibly more costly, according to several architectural and engineering experts vying to design the expansion.

But Richard Swirnow, the developer who heads the group that proposed the hotel as part of a $600 million medical-oriented conference and trade center, says that he is confident that any construction difficulties can be overcome and that the advantages of a "convention headquarters hotel" will far outweigh any disadvantages.

Critics of the plan haven't seen the entire proposal yet, he said. "I don't think they have any understanding of what we want to do."

Concerns about the proposed hotel were aired this week when representatives of the Baltimore Convention Center Authority interviewed architectural and engineering teams that are seeking design the expansion, estimated to cost $125 million to $150 million.

During the interviews, representatives for two of the four design teams under consideration indicated that they believed the addition of a hotel could make the project more difficult to build. A third team indicated that it would be a "challenge" that might pay off, while the fourth team was not asked about the hotel and did not volunteer its opinion.

The teams that expressed concerns said that one of the biggest problems is that the proposed site for the Convention Center expansion is limited, and with the addition of a hotel, more loading docks and other service areas would be needed for delivery vehicles coming to the hotel as well as the Convention Center.They also said that on-site parking for the hotel would be particularly difficult to provide.

One of the strongest warnings about the hotel came from architect Mario L. Schack, who is part of a team headed by Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum (HOK) of Washington. He said that a 1,000-room hotel most likely would rise 35 to 40 stories and that from an urban planning standpoint, a "more meaningful" site for it would be the city-owned block just west of the proposed Convention Center expansion site, the block bounded by Camden, Howard, Pratt and Eutaw streets.

"An air rights development of a hotel from my point of view represents a tremendous obstacle . . . I will be that candid," said Mr. Schack, a longtime member of Baltimore's Architectural Review Board and Design Advisory Panel. "Most importantly," he said, "it will affect the schedule" of the Convention Center expansion, because "you really have to design the hotel as well" as the Convention Center addition.

"Technically, it can be done. The point is, you pay a premium to support that high-rise facility," said Ted Mariani, an engineer competing in partnership with Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and Associates. "Do you want to pay extra for the . . . truss needed" to lift it off the ground?

Andy McLean, a partner of TVS&A;, said funding sources for the hotel would most likely be different than those for the Convention Center expansion. Those differences, he said, could throw off the authority's construction timetable, which calls for work to begin in late 1992 and be complete by late 1994 or early 1995.

Working with a Far Eastern group called Parkway Holdings Ltd., Mr. Swirnow made his proposal to build the hotel in the air rights overthe Convention Center expansion on July 15, the same day he expressed interest in developing five other state or city-owned parcels near the Camden Yards stadium to build a medical-oriented convention and trade center.

As part of his proposal, Mr. Swirnow offered to donate $425,000 to the Baltimore Convention Center Authority to help pay the cost of designing the expansion, with the understanding that he wanted the authority to support his plan for the hotel. The authority has not officially accepted that donation, but Robert Hillman, the chairman, has indicated a willingness to do so as long as it is clear the authority is making no promises in return for the money.

Another group of architects put a positive spin on their reaction to the proposed hotel.

"An element like that could be a great asset in terms of the identifiability of the [Convention Center expansion] project," said Robert Sowder of Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall, a group in partnership with RTKL Associates Inc. of Baltimore and others.

Mr. Swirnow, who attended the interviews as an observer and has no role in selecting the architects, said that he was undaunted by the warnings he heard. He said that his plan was not to build over the entire expansion but only part of it, and that the exact area had not been determined.

Mr. Swirnow conceded that the expansion would require additional planning if it were to support a hotel, but he said that the presence of the hotel atop the Convention Center would help "bring life to the city 24 hours a day." He added that he and his partners are not interested in developing the hotel at any other site.

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