City officials yesterday tapped Baltimore developer J.J. Clarke Enterprises Inc. and a New Orleans partner known for historic restoration to transform Fells Point's landmark Recreation Pier into a three-story, European-style boutique hotel, overriding the recommendation of a neighborhood task force.
Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said yesterday that he picked Clarke and HRI Properties' plan for renovating the crumbling century-old pier at the foot of Broadway over a proposal by Baltimore-based Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse because the Clarke/HRI team best addressed community concerns.
Those included preserving the historic nature of the pier and the neighborhood's trademark tugboat business, run by Moran Towing of Maryland, and the specific plans for a hotel, which the community favored over housing or offices.
The decision, announced to a neighborhood task force last night and backed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, came after more than a year in which neighborhood residents, business owners and city officials reviewed proposals as varied as luxury condos, office space, a museum or artisan stalls similar to the Torpedo Factory in the Old Town section of Alexandria, Va.
Graziano announced the decision during a meeting of the Fells Point Task Force, an umbrella group of 14 community associations.
"This is a chance to bring in a nationally known historic preservation team," Graziano told the task force, which had backed the Struever proposal.
Graziano said the HRI and Clarke team were ready to start and had financing lined up. "We must proceed as expeditiously as possible ...[because of] concern about the integrity of the pier," he said.
HRI, which specializes in reviving abandoned, historic neighborhoods, helped to transform New Orleans' old Warehouse District into a trendy enclave of art galleries, museums, restaurants, hotels and upscale and mixed-income apartments. In Fells Point, Clarke and HRI have proposed a 145-room hotel with artisan stalls beneath an atrium lobby. The hotel would be managed by Kimpton Group, a hotel chain that operates boutique hotels such as the Hotel Monaco in Washington and the Hotel Monaco San Francisco.
The pier, an early-20th-century port of entry for immigrants that was later used for city recreation programs, was closed to the community in the early 1990s. It subsequently served as the set for the police headquarters for the TV crime drama Homicide: Life on the Street, and has been mostly vacant since the series ended in 1999. The city viewed it as an underused, but valuable community resource at serious risk of collapse, and had said the desires of the community would weigh heavily in the selection of a developer.
The community was split over the pier's future use, with some favoring a commercial development such as a hotel to draw people and boost local businesses. Others preferred mostly community-oriented space, the restoration of the existing ballroom, market stalls, a museum, and a permanent home for the Pride of Baltimore II. The community has remained united, though, on keeping the working tugboats in Fells Point.
Clarke's plans had won the most support in a preliminary poll of about 300 Fells Point residents and business owners who voted in September during a community meeting sponsored by the Fells Point Task Force. But in a final vote in October, the task force itself favored Struever. Seven of the task force's 14 community associations chose Struever, four chose Clarke, two abstained and one voted against both proposals.
At the time, Struever senior development director Larry White had said the community was sold on the developer's willingness to explore restoring as much of the Beaux Arts building as possible for public use, either as a museum or artisan stalls similar to the Torpedo Factory. He had said that if a purely public use was not viable, the company would consider developing a residential, commercial or hotel use, but acknowledged that the hotel appeared to be the most acceptable to the community.
Community members had said they were swayed by Struever's work in the community and offers to finance an additional $25,000 to hire a grant writing consultant to pursue funding to support renovation for public use.
Yesterday, Graziano said the city had determined a purely public use would not be feasible without city dollars, which are not available, and that taking additional time to study and formulate a more specific proposal could put the pier's restoration in jeopardy. He said he had considered the community's input.
"Most significantly, [the Struever proposal] called for another year of study... and we think the time for action is now," because of the pier's deteriorating condition and likelihood that a delay would increase restoration costs, Graziano said. "I can't as a public servant responsibly say I'll wait another year. We have in hand this stellar package, and they're ready to go and be responsive to what the community sought."
Last night, some members of the task force reacted angrily to Graziano's decision, questioning the need for another hotel and the Clarke team's qualifications and commitment to working with the community.
"You're taking away a local developer that the community has chosen," said Susan Singer, a task force member, referring to Streuver.
But Matt Haag, representing the Upper Fells Point Homeowners Association, said the majority of his group had favored the Clarke proposal.
"There is common ground to move forward on," he said.
J. Joseph Clarke said he expects to enter into a period of negotiation with the city to iron out issues such as how to accommodate Moran Towing and the Pride of Baltimore II, which the community also requested be part of the project.