Now that Baltimore is willing to permit construction of two large downtown hotels rather than one, the city finally appears to be on its way to gaining the guest rooms needed to support the expanded Convention Center.
But will the proposed hotels be graceful, permanent additions to the city as well as convenient spots for conventioneers?
In recent weeks, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has spoken in glowing terms about the design of the $137.6 million Wyndham Hotel planned for the Inner Harbor East renewal area, predicting it will transform the harbor front. Others have extolled the virtues of the $150 million Grand Hyatt proposed by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, praising its proximity to the convention center and Camden Yards.
Those observations may be valid from a visitor's point of view. Both hotels will have the first-class amenities travelers have come to expect.
But the test of a successful hotel isn't just how well it handles visitors. Though they may boast plenty of creature comforts, both the Inner Harbor East and Camden Yards hotels have urban design flaws that make them less than ideal for their respective settings. If constructed as designed today, both would violate height limits and other key design controls established to protect the areas where they would be built.
For civic leaders seeking to get these mega-projects off the drawing board, this is a problem that cannot be ignored. Now that the national chains are expressing strong interest in Baltimore, local planners need to make sure these large, urban hotels work as well for the community at large as they do for visitors.
The chief design problem with the 750-room Wyndham Hotel proposed for the Inner Harbor East renewal area is its size. It's too tall and its base is too bulky for its fragile waterfront setting near Little Italy.
Baltimore's downtown development authority might have saved itself a lot of grief if it had simply rejected the initial proposal from John Paterakis Sr. as being nonresponsive to the city's request for proposals, because the hotel cannot be built without amendments to the urban renewal plan.
Instead, the authority asked developers to redesign the hotel to address certain concerns. The architects -- Cooper Carry Hospitality of Atlanta and Beatty Harvey Fillat of Baltimore -- came back with a building that is even taller than the original version -- 44 stories instead of 32. That would make it the city's tallest structure -- towering above even the HarborView high-rise across the harbor.
The design has improved in several respects. The tower has become more slender, and the guest rooms now all have waterfront views.
At the same time, the hotel's nine-story base takes up even more land than before. The tinted glass-and-white surface stands in stark contrast to the warm brick and rich details of the Eastern Avenue Pumping Station and the rowhouses of Little Italy.
This is not at all what New York architect Stanton Eckstut envisioned a decade ago, when he designed the award-winning master plan for 20 acres between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point.
Best known for his work with Battery Park City in New York,
Eckstut proposed an ensemble of mid-rise buildings that would create an attractive new neighborhood on Baltimore's waterfront. None was to be taller than 18 stories.
The Wyndham Hotel is the antithesis of Eckstut's vision. It's a slick, soaring object that would dominate everything around it, the way the HarborView tower does on Key Highway. It may be glitzy, but it's not Baltimore.
This dichotomy is precisely the problem: What's good for a short-term hotel guest isn't necessarily good for the community at large. Adding height to the tower may result in better views from inside, but it also means the building will cast longer shadows. Increasing the size of the base may make it easier to find a parking space or a meeting room, but it takes away any sense of human scale.
Clearly, the hotel interests on the team have done a good job of making sure the Wyndham's guests will be happy. Since the development team is seeking millions of dollars' worth of tax breaks and public subsidies, it stands to reason that someone should be looking out for the public realm as well. But that does not seem to have been the case.
Camden Yards conundrum
Just like the Inner Harbor East parcel, the blocks bounded by Camden, Howard, Pratt and Paca streets are subject to development controls limiting the height and bulk of any buildings constructed there.
These controls were established to help preserve certain views into and out of the one spot in town as sacred as the Inner Harbor -- Oriole Park at Camden Yards, with its companion 1857 train station. The city will soon seek development proposals for these blocks. But already, just as with the Inner Harbor East parcel, a developer wants to build more than the controls would allow.
The developer this time is a group headed by Orioles owner and local attorney Peter Angelos. He has submitted a proposal to build a $150 million, 850-room Grand Hyatt hotel, with a direct link to the Convention Center.
As conceived by his architects, the Weihe Design Group of Washington, the Grand Hyatt would consist of two buildings -- a high-rise that would be constructed on the western block, and a mid-rise that would occupy the eastern block.
Judging from the preliminary plans released so far, it's a solid proposal that may very well represent the city's last, best hope of addressing the need for a large "headquarters" hotel to serve the Convention Center. But architecturally, it could be even better.
The best part of the design is that it puts the bulk of the hotel on the far west end of the site, where it would be the least visually intrusive on Oriole Park. By stacking the guest rooms close to Paca Street, the designers avoid obscuring picture-postcard views of the city skyline for those watching a game from the ballpark.
Another positive aspect of the design is the way the architects have attempted to extend the feel of Camden Yards by picking up details of Oriole Park and incorporating them into the hotel. It would have green roofs, brick stair towers and other features that would echo the look of Baltimore's neo-traditional ballpark. Many of the guest rooms would have a clear view into the baseball field.
One element of the design that may need to be restudied is the way the 22-story guest-room tower steps down in two directions -- a poor imitation of the terraced design of the blue granite office tower at 250 W. Pratt St. If anything, the tower needs to be slenderized the same way the Inner Harbor East hotel was.
The worst part of the design is that it fills up the lot north of Camden Station, blocking views of the station for anyone driving by on Pratt Street. The mid-rise building on the eastern end of the site would contain public functions operated by the hotel, including ballrooms and exhibit areas. It would also be the least attractive element of the complex -- a nondescript box that echoes the Baltimore Arena. The pedestrian bridge that links the hotel to the Convention Center, too, would obscure views of Camden Station.
This is where the proposal violates the city's development guidelines. The city's urban design controls allow a tall building on the western block. But in the 1980s, city planners worked with architect George Notter to develop design controls for the land north of Camden Station -- the block bounded by Howard, Pratt, Eutaw and Camden streets -- and came up with restrictions that would prohibit any building as large as the one Angelos proposed.
Notter's guidelines require that the center of the block remain open, to preserve views from Pratt Street to the front of the train station. Mid-rise buildings would be permitted along the east and west sides of the block, to frame this open space.
The ballroom building planned for the Grand Hyatt does not provide the open space recommended by Notter. In this case, however, there is a solution. It ought to be possible to take the ballroom spaces in front of Camden Station and combine them with the hotel structure on the western block, creating a single structure with all the hotel functions in one location.
The resulting building would be taller than the structure Angelos proposed, and it would be one block from the convention center rather than directly west of it. Still, by tucking the ballrooms in with the rest of the hotel, the developers would be complying with the city's goal of keeping open the block north of Camden Station. A climate-controlled walkway could then be designed to link the hotel and the convention center, perhaps underground, without obstructing the view of Camden Station from Pratt Street.
Freeing up the land north of Camden Station is important for another reason. The Maryland Stadium Authority has been exploring plans to make the block a gateway to Camden Yards.
Designers hired by the stadium authority, RTKL Associates and Mahan Rykiel Associates, have completed a study for the block that shows it would be possible to create a park at street level, with three levels of underground parking for 749 cars, at a cost of $23.1 million.
The park would be an attractive forecourt to Camden Station and a pleasant link between the Grand Hyatt and the Convention Center. It would give breathing space to any future development on the lot bounded by Pratt, Howard, Eutaw and Lombard streets, where the Holiday Inn is now. And the state would be able to pay for its construction through parking revenues. As a result, when the city seeks development proposals for the two blocks along Camden Street, the stadium authority intends to submit its park plan.
This is where city planners will have a tough choice to make. Ballrooms would benefit any hotel that owns them. But a well-designed public park is a civic amenity that would enhance the entire west side of downtown. Other than along the Inner Harbor shoreline, Baltimore has few public spaces that are active day and night. This could be one of the city's most memorable -- the local version of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. It would add value to any building that faces it, including the Grand Hyatt. Given a choice between ballrooms that would obscure Camden Station or a vibrant public space, the city should support the park.
It is no surprise that developers want to build hotels at both the Inner Harbor East and Camden Yards renewal areas. Baltimore has benefited from strong planning efforts in both locations. The hotel plans are the best testament to date of the plans' success at generating interest from serious investors.
The ungainly Wyndham hotel planned for the harbor-front shows what can happen when city planners ignore development controls established to protect the public realm. The city cannot afford to be equally lax with Camden Yards.
What: Breakfast forum on the design of the Wyndham Hotel with speakers including Stanton Eckstut, author of the Inner Harbor East master plan, and Alan Tantleff, a hotel market analyst
Where: Baltimore Hilton, Baltimore and Hanover streets
When: 7: 45 a.m. to 10 a.m. Thursday
Tickets: $10 in advance, $15 at the door
Contact: AIA Baltimore, 11 1/2 W. Chase St., Baltimore, Md. 21202; or 410-625-2585
Pub Date: 7/20/97