Perhaps the most prominent piece of undeveloped real estate on Baltimore's harbor may soon be home to a soaring 27-story skyscraper rivaling the nearby Marriott Waterfront hotel.
The city Planning Commission acted yesterday to raise to 350 feet from 205 feet the height limitation for the Harbor Point development proposed for a picturesque 27-acre peninsula jutting out of Fells Point.
The 1.8 million-square-foot development is expected to include a major hotel and several commercial office buildings. The hotel appears likely to be located in the skyscraper. The five other buildings are expected to be significantly lower.
Height has been a controversial issue as commercial development has spread from the Inner Harbor toward Fells Point.
Planners had proposed that newer buildings on the water close to the historic structures of Fells Point should be lower to harmonize with the neighborhood. They set the original 205-foot height limit.
But the appointed members of the Planning Commission rejected the planners' proposal yesterday, saying they hope the developers will use a far more generous height allowance to build a landmark structure.
"The designers should have the flexibility to produce a truly stunning building," said Javier Bustamante, evoking the possibility of Baltimore getting a signature complex like the much-admired Sydney Opera House in Australia.
Bustamante, a member of the planning commission, suggested that any height should be permitted as long as the $500 million Harbor Point development stays within a limit of 1.8 million square feet.
The majority of the commission preferred increasing the height limit. The change must be authorized by amending a planned unit development bill pending before the City Council.
Neighborhood representatives said yesterday that a taller building on the former AlliedSignal chromium plant site would not necessarily be bad if it meant that the mass of the development would be moved away from streets bordering Fells Point.
"If you can have more open space and have a tall building, I don't think that's bad necessarily," said Carolyn Boitnott, coordinator of the Waterfront Coalition.
Whether the height flexibility will change the massing of buildings remains to be seen. The Harbor Point site is a very complicated one, pointed out Lawrence J. White, development director for Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse, which is in charge of planning the site.
Because of potential liability worries some would-be tenants have insisted that they be located on an uncontaminated portion of the land, he said. Much of that land borders on Fells Point, along Thames Street. Such demands may make it difficult for the developers to shift mass to other points on the parcel.
Kay Hogan, president of the Fells Point Homeowners Association, protested that the neighborhood had not been consulted about the proposed new height. "The community hasn't had any say in this," she declared.
The bill currently before the City Council would repeal and replace a planned unit development ordinance, which was approved in 1993, when the contaminated site was still in the midst of a $100 million cleanup and had murky future prospects. It currently restricts the tallest buildings on the site to 180 feet.
Development plans for the site have been moving rapidly during the past year, ending a decade of dormancy.
Bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr. has partnered with builder C. William Struever in sponsoring development of the land, which they have called Harbor Point.
They originally envisioned that 11 acres of the 27 would be used for buildings, 8.3 acres for open space and the rest for streets and promenades.
Planning Commission Chairman Peter E. Auchincloss said he hoped that more flexibility on height would encourage the developers and architects to strive to build a "really dynamic structure with a park area."
He called the 1.8 million square foot development ceiling a "nonnegotiable" limit and said the Planning Commission wants a role in reviewing architectural proposals for the site. A separate Design Advisory Panel ordinarily scrutinizes such detailed architectural drawings.
The developers also face other complications.
Chief among them is the question of access. Now, the site can only be entered from Caroline Street. The developers want to build a bridge to Harbor Point from Harbor East, a major development of hotels, offices and residences the Paterakis interests are developing along the waterfront just south of Little Italy.
Such a bridge would limit or block operation of a marina used by the Living Classrooms Foundation, which has a campus on the basin separating Harbor Point from Harbor East.
Planning Commission members suggested yesterday that the bridge problem would probably be resolved by moving the foundation's sailing operation to a second campus it is building between Fells Point and Harbor Point.