As if the Inner Harbor East hotel project hadn't seen enough strange happenings already, there was a sight yesterday that bordered on the surreal.
Near the base of the half-finished 32-story hotel was a large tent made of transparent plastic. Inside, amid flowers, ferns and tuxedo-clad waiters, a crowd of Baltimore's leading political and economic figures munched on curried couscous salad and chocolate-covered strawberries. Baking executive John Paterakis Sr., the main force behind the hotel, was there, as were Baltimore Development Corp. President M. J. "Jay" Brodie, Bell Atlantic-Maryland CEO Sherry F. Bellamy, a few members of the City Council, and numerous influential others.
At a podium inside the tent, John W. Marriott III, the scion of the chain that will run the hotel, spoke into a walkie-talkie. After a few moments, a 21-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce sitting just outside the tent began to rise into the air, reeled up by a crane cable like a huge arboreal yo-yo.
The tree kept rising into the Baltimore sky, its wooden base twirling in the air. Inside the tent, a brassy rendition of the "Chariots of Fire" theme boomed over the speakers. The crowd applauded enthusiastically as the great yellow crane-arm wheeled clockwise and pulled the tree onto the roof.
The purpose of this act of levitation was to mark the halfway point in the construction of the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel; the building is nearly at its final height and a skin of metallic-blue windows has formed on the lower floors. Marriott officials said the facility is due for completion on Feb. 15, 2001 and already has 80,000 tentative reservations.
The ceremony of hoisting a tree to the top of a new building supposedly goes back 1,300 years to Scandinavians seeking to appease the gods. Paterakis can relate; he's had to see this $130 million project through stiff criticism, lawsuits, and continual uncertainty about which hotel chain would lend its name to the enterprise.
In the tent, Paterakis talked about a conversation he'd had with former mayor Kurt Schmoke about the hotel venture: "Schmoke said to me, 'Would you do this again?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Me, too.' "
Paterakis cracked a grin, then added, "It's a tough thing to put anything up, especially a hotel. But the city was very cooperative."
To get the hotel going, Baltimore ponied up a $5 million grant and another $5 million in loans. In addition, the hotel won't have to pay city real estate taxes for the first quarter-century of its existence, a $75 million windfall.
City Council member Helen Holton said the tax abatement, known as a payment in lieu of taxes or PILOT, will benefit the city in the end.
"Without the PILOT, this would still be undeveloped," Holton said, gesturing at the land beyond the clear plastic. "The amount of revenue that will be generated from this PILOT is just incredible."
On the windswept roof of the new hotel, 320 feet up, the spruce stood amid construction clutter. Hard-hatted workers with the best office views in all of Baltimore shouted orders and jokes.
"It's not bad today," one of them said, looking out to the horizon. "In the fall it's really clear, and warmer too."
Out on the glassy water, ships made their barely-perceptible progress in and out of the harbor. From this high up, the city is surprisingly red -- all that brick. Atop this expensive tower, you take in the troubled town in vast visual gulps. For better or for worse, the hotel already looms large.