Builder draws ire of city leaders


A waterfront developer who defied a city order to stop work on million-dollar homes that violated height restrictions should pay the price, city leaders and community residents said yesterday.

City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who represents South Baltimore, where HarborView developer Richard Swirnow is building, said yesterday that the developer shouldn't get away with building the first 30 townhouses too tall or with ignoring the city's stop-work order for two days last week. Swirnow is building an exclusive cluster of 88 townhouses on piers that jut into the Inner Harbor.

"They've got to be taught a lesson," Reisinger said. "[Swirnow] thinks it's a big joke. There's got to be a penalty and no $1,000 a day. We mean business."

Reisinger said he's pushing the city's law department to figure out an appropriate penalty. He's got the support of City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents neighborhoods across the harbor, including Canton and Fells Point, where residents complain almost daily about builders pushing the limits of city standards.

"Until the [city] decides to put teeth in their enforcement, this stuff is going to continue to go on," Kraft said yesterday. "We're not going to tolerate this."

Swirnow and HarborView Vice President Frank Wise could not be reached for comment yesterday. Wise has insisted that the buildings follow city guidelines. "Obviously, we disagree that the original plans were in any way out of compliance," he said Friday.

On Wednesday, Baltimore served Swirnow with an order to stop work on the Pier Homes at HarborView project because the four-story homes exceed 58 feet. Rooftop structures, which the developer told the city would house only mechanical equipment, are putting the buildings 4 feet over the limit. The rooftop structures were billed to buyers as "penthouses" with optional wet bars.

The developer was not to resume work on the remaining 60 or so homes until he submitted revised plans.

Yet crews worked at the site all day Thursday and Friday.

Late Friday, not long after the city presented Swirnow with an order telling the developer to cease and desist work, the developer submitted new plans that satisfied Planning Director Otis Rolley III.

Even if the rest of the Pier Homes project is built in compliance, Reisinger said, Swirnow must still be penalized for the ones built incorrectly and for ignoring the stop-work order.

"Right now it looks like he's getting away with it," Reisinger said. "It's an insult to the city."

City Solicitor Ralph Tyler had no immediate statement yesterday on whether Swirnow would be penalized for violating the stop-work order or for violating height rules on the 30 completed homes.

"We'll have to look at that," he said.

John Cochran, a resident of the HarborView tower, is concerned that Swirnow is damaging his community's reputation. He said the city must not let the developer dodge Baltimore's laws.

"We want a community that is beautiful, with protected property values and that has a good reputation and a good relationship with our neighbors in Federal Hill," Cochran said yesterday.

"It doesn't seem right that a prominent person like this developer would have that attitude toward the rules and regulations of the city."

Kraft's position on noncompliant building is: "You build when you're not supposed to and we make you take it down." He says fines as the city currently administers them - $500 here, $250 there - mean nothing to a builder, particularly an established developer like Swirnow.

"Hit them where they live," he said yesterday. "Make them take down the stuff they built illegally. Because a $5,000 fine is nothing to them. It's like the equivalent of a nickel."

Kraft acknowledges that taking down homes - particularly when people are already living in some of the Pier Homes - is problematic and unfair to the residents who didn't cause the problem.

But a penalty has to hurt or it's pointless, he said. As a solution, he's considering legislation that would require developers to pay a substantial fine - per home, per violation - into the city's affordable housing fund.

If the penalty on the 30 HarborView homes that already have been built was $5,000 each, that would net $150,000 for affordable housing. Something like that, Kraft believes, would make developers think twice about running around the law.

The city's actions against HarborView came after persistent complaints - for nearly a year - from a handful of Federal Hill activists. Those residents are also pushing the city to penalize the developer for the homes already built out of compliance.

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