After months of increasingly exasperated complaints from South Baltimore residents that million-dollar waterfront homes were being built too tall, the city has ordered construction stopped on the Pier Homes at HarborView.
The 88 four-story homes being built mainly on piers that jut into the Inner Harbor are in violation, officials ruled this week, and any homes still under construction will have to come into compliance before work can resume at the site.
Putting the luxury homes over the 58-foot height limit are roof-top structures that are supposed to house only mechanical equipment but are instead billed by the developer as "penthouses" with optional wet bars.
The penthouses add at least four feet to the structures, a lapse that could seem small to some, but not to anyone involved in the increasingly acrimonious battles between communities and developers over building height.
"The long and short of it is, are they in compliance - and the answer is no," City Planning Director Otis Rolley III said yesterday. "So we issued a stop-work order."
Though nothing would happen to the approximately 30 finished units, some of which people have already moved into, the penthouses on the 60 or so townhouses still under construction would have to be reduced in size to meet city regulations.
HarborView's developer insisted yesterday that the Pier Homes violate nothing. In fact, Frank Wise, vice president of HarborView Properties Development Co., said he expected the city to reverse its decision "very quickly."
"We believe we're absolutely 100 percent in compliance with the Key Highway urban renewal plan," said Wise. "The city has raised a question to that compliance based on unknown information from a local community group."
Yesterday, as news spread that the city had issued the stop-work order, the handful of activists who had pushed for it were somewhat gratified but even more surprised.
After pleading with top city officials including Rolley, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano and Mayor Martin O'Malley since last summer to stop the development, they had given up hope that the city would take action.
"It's about time," said James S. Keat, a longtime Federal Hill activist and former president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "I alerted them to this last August, and anybody with eyes could see they were too high.
"I've gotten the bureaucratic runaround from everybody - why did they wait so long?"
The tale of how the Pier Homes ended up too tall is a somewhat convoluted one. And the search for an explanation as to why it took nearly a year to fix the problem once it was revealed to city leaders is equally opaque.
Rolley's best answer is that because complaints, questions and accusations fill his inbox everyday, and oftentimes the correspondence amounts to nothing much, it is hard to recognize the true issues.
"Sometimes you get these complaints and you think it's the typical 'I hate development/developers are evil' issue," he said. "After you take the time to look into it, you find out it's much more."
As for the height problems, according to Rolley, though planners in his department flagged the penthouses on HarborView's blueprints - and told the developer that the plans violated city law - the developer later got a building permit from the housing department that included the penthouses.
Officials in the departments were apparently oblivious to the miscommunication until Keat and fellow Federal Hill resident Paul Robinson began writing letters last summer.
Rolley, responding to a letter from Keat, wrote in March that he "just recently learned" that his department's system for marking up plans had "no standing" with code enforcement officers in the housing department.
Because of the confusion, Rolley wrote, when his department now sees an error in a plan, it rejects it and asks for revisions.
"I assure you and your fellow community members that we are working fastidiously to ensure this incident does not repeat itself," Rolley wrote.
But, the director added, "unfortunately our ability to remedy this matter is very limited."
That wasn't good enough for the activists. They pressed on. With only about 30 of the 88 Pier Homes complete, they figured the city should make sure the rest complied with the law.
But early this week, officials seemed unwilling or unable to take action against HarborView.
On Tuesday, in an interview with The Sun, Rolley said, "The problem is their building permits have already been issued. Believe me, we considered a number of things, but legally we have nothing left."
Yet on Wednesday, the city issued the stop-work order.
City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, called HarborView's ability to get the permit despite the Planning Department's concerns an example of how developers have learned to play the system. "You have some developers who know the system, they know the loopholes and they exploit it," he said. "It's got to be fixed."
Reisinger applauded the community leaders who forced Baltimore to take action - if not for them, he said, nothing would have happened.
HarborView can take either of two avenues to satisfy city law and resume construction, Rolley said yesterday. The developer could lower the height to 58 feet. Or HarborView could eliminate the option of the wet bar and shrink the size of the penthouse, making it a room housing nothing more than a stairway and mechanical equipment.
Yesterday evening Wise indicated that HarborView might be willing to stop offering the bar option, but he objected to shrinking the size of the roof-top structures.
"There's not a whole lot of room here to shrink anything," he said. "The space is nothing more than a landing at the top of the stairs."
Because 72 of the Pier Homes are already under contract, should HarborView choose to alter the penthouses to appease the city, some of those buyers could be upset to learn they aren't getting their penthouse as promised. Wise, however, is not worried because he said HarborView includes a clause in its contracts that covers the developer in the case of plan changes due to "government action."
Bonnie Fleck, a real estate agent who works with luxury properties, said if such a change happened to one of her clients, she would instruct them to contact a lawyer.
"It's less than what they thought they were going to get," she said. "They should get a discount or the right to walk away from the contract."