The owners of the Southern Hotel plan to demolish the downtown landmark as early as this fall in preparation for a $180 million, 44-story office tower they hope to build within four years.
But commercial real estate analysts said any development on the Light Street site was highly unlikely within that time frame.
A proposal to build the city's tallest skyscraper on the site appeared doomed three years ago because of the weakened commercial real estate market. And despite a lingering soft market for office space downtown, Capital Guidance Corp., which heads a group that owns the building, still intends to pursue its plans, said J. Joseph Clarke, an agent for Mirecourt Associates, an affiliate of Capital Guidance.
jTC The city zoning board is to decide Tuesday whether to extend for four years a variance needed to build the 750,000-square-foot tower.
"The plans we have are for a 44-story building, and that's what we're currently considering," said Mr. Clarke, president of J. J. Clarke Enterprises Inc., agent for the Capital Guidance group.
Mr. Clarke said the group -- which owns the parcel bounded by Light, Grant, Baltimore and Redwood streets -- hoped market conditions would allow construction to start before 1997, when the city's zoning extension would expire.
"Let's hope it doesn't get that far," he said. "You're asking me to guess what the market for real estate in America will be for the next few years. I don't know."
In the short term, "the odds are not in their favor" in a city glutted with a five-year supply of office space, said Robert Kleinpaste, president of Legg Mason Realty Group. "It could be 10 years. The great unknown there is whether they could score a major coup and find an employer to bring to Baltimore and build them a building."
Even under the best conditions,the project faces competition from such prime waterfront sites as those on which the News American and McCormick & Co. Inc. buildings were demolished, he said. Those sites, which also were planned for office towers, are parking lots.
But demolishing the hotel would only help the developer, Mr. Kleinpaste said.
"A building sitting in that condition, deteriorating further and further, becomes a public hazard and expensive to maintain," Mr. Kleinpaste said. "It's far easier to sell a site that has been cleared."
The city issued a demolition permit for the Southern Hotel in late May. For several years, the hotel's owner, Trammell Crow Co., and Baltimore Development Corp. -- a nonprofit organization that monitors downtown development -- tried to design a development that included the 76-year-old historic structure,which has been vacant for 20 years.
"The building as it currently stands cannot be redeveloped," said Michael Seipp, vice president of the development corporation. "Because of the cost of renovations and layout of the building, it did not lend itself to uses that could be financed."
Trammell Crow bought the hotel for $6.5 million in 1989, but failed to get a commitment from a lead tenant. The Dallas-based real estate company sold its equity stake to Capital Guidance, its joint venture partner, in November 1991.
Until construction starts at the site, the city has asked Capital Guidance to create a temporary "pocket park," which the Baltimore Development Corp.'s Architectural Review Board -Z approved last fall.
The park approval has done little to appease preservationists, however, who have been dismayed at the succession of landmark buildings leveled for office space that no one wants.