With a flock of jittery, curious sea gulls overhead and the constant noise of heavy machinery surrounding him, Alan Hunt surveyed the holes in the ground that many believed would never be dug.
Several yards away, a drill rising eight stories pierced the wet ground, on its way to creating a cavity 70 feet deep and the future foundation of the Wyndham Inner Harbor East Hotel.
"The spade is in the ground now," said Hunt, a site manager for Wyndham general contractor Armada/Hoffler Construction Co., a slight Southern drawl in his voice. "What we're doing now is underground, but watch in the next 45 days, and things'll happen above ground, too."
In all, more than 150 holes -- some more than eight feet in diameter -- will be dug and filled with concrete, creating the foundation for a 31-story high-rise. The work will consume the next three months. Some holes will take as long as seven hours to create.
That construction on the Wyndham has begun is almost as spectacular as the drilling now taking place. Critics predicted that shovels would never touch dirt on the $134 million project after a series of lawsuits, financing setbacks and other delays. Originally, developers hoped to begin work in January on the project, which was conceived nearly three years ago.
Last month, the project suffered what many believed was another significant blow, when a Baltimore judge eliminated millions of dollars in tax breaks for the Wyndham. But the hotel's developers and city officials contend that they will find a way to restore the tax breaks.
A faux groundbreaking in June -- together with a perceived cooling in the lodging industry -- only fanned doubts, especially when real construction work on the first of three major hotels planned for downtown failed to follow. To make matters worse, Patriot American Hospitality Inc., one of the hotels' partners, has fallen on hard financial times, leaving skeptics to wonder if the Dallas company will be able to keep its pledge to buy the hotel upon completion.
But yesterday, the Wyndham's developers stepped around steel rods and 6-foot-tall pipes and watched proudly as the giant hole punch poked the earth, the first tangible evidence that the 750-room hotel would go forward.
"Our intention is to go full speed ahead," said Michael Beatty, a vice president of H&S; Properties Development Co., the real estate arm of baking magnate John Paterakis Sr., one of four hTC partners building the hotel.
"Any insecurity anyone has had regarding Patriot, John has shored up," Beatty added.
"We've spent more than $8 million so far, and Patriot has walked away from a lot of other development projects, but they've stayed with this. If they intended to not go forward, they would have done it a long time ago."
Next week, lights are to go up and compete for space with the half-dozen behemoth pile drivers crammed on the 2-acre construction site, allowing the construction crew of 20 or so to work past dark. And with the foundation's piling holes under way -- a job that will require 8,000 cubic yards of concrete in all -- other work will soon commence.
Early next month, concrete is to be poured for the hotel's foundation. In mid-January, towering cranes are to go up, a metal signal of the project's advancement on the city's skyline.
Beatty and Hunt say the Wyndham will be ready to open in less than two years. "We are rockin' and rollin'," said Hunt, scanning a series of blueprints in Armada/Hoffler's construction trailer. "We're gonna build this thing in record time, especially if this weather holds."
The weather won't be the only tricky part of the project. To dig the foundation holes, Atlantic Caisson Corp. of Pennsylvania will remove both dirt and water, install a huge metal pipe called a caisson, fill the empty space with a mixture of a concrete-like substance and water known as "slurry," and then push the material out of the hole with concrete that is pumped in.
The system, which applies fancy engineering terms such as "hydrostatic pressure" and "load-bearing value," has its roots in oil drilling, said Bill Newman, Atlantic's chief engineer on the Wyndham project.
But before concrete can be put in, dirt and water have to be taken out. On the way down 70 feet to bedrock strong enough to support the concrete pilings, drillers will have to go past the Inner Harbor's water table and through boulders and other rock. Hence the 80-ton cranes.
"Boys with big toys, basically," said Mark Suchy, Atlantic's safety director.
Pub Date: 12/05/98