A plan by HarborView to build two more waterfront towers - despite having exhausted its construction options on the South Baltimore site - has aggravated long-standing tensions between the prolific developer and Federal Hill area neighborhoods.
People who live south of HarborView, with its hundreds of luxury homes that multiplied at the water's edge in the past two decades, are urging city leaders not to indulge a developer who they say has blocked views, hung no-trespassing signs, violated height limits and defied stop-work orders.
In an attempt to defuse the community's skepticism - which hit new heights last week when city planners attempted to broker a compromise with HarborView without its knowledge - Mayor Sheila Dixon has invited neighborhood leaders to a meeting today.
"The developer knew the rules of the game, and now he wants to change the rules," said Bill Vandyke, a Federal Hill resident.
"The opportunity to preserve sightlines was lost. You can't see the water."
The City Council is weighing HarborView's $100 million skyline-altering plan. To build two new condominium towers, each to be 26 stories tall, developer Richard A. Swirnow needs the council to let him cover more of the lot's surface and to build towers closer together than the original 1980s urban renewal plan allows.
According to that plan, Swirnow will use up his space when he builds The Pinnacle, a recently approved 17-story condo building, where the most expensive suite is expected to cost $7 million.
Swirnow argues that he's entitled to the third and fourth high rises because the 1980s plan gave him permission to build six tall buildings. Although during the weak 1990s real estate market he built mainly townhouses, using up his allotted space, Swirnow insists he still has a right to the towers.
The community has "no rational objection to this because it's a much better plan than was ever envisioned," said Frank Wise, HarborView's vice president. "It will be far, far, far, far less dense than was ever provided for."
With additional towers in mind, more than a year ago HarborView asked city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano to waive the Key Highway urban renewal plan regulations. That way the developer could avoid the unpredictable City Council hearing process.
Graziano declined, saying the exception was too great a departure from the original plan.
Politics was also a consideration. At the time, the community, Key Highway property owners and city planners were immersed in a tug of war over the future of the still-industrial, southern leg of the corridor - a struggle that continues today, with the parties seemingly incapable of agreeing how the land should evolve.
The suspicions and bad feelings came to a head last summer when the city issued a stop-work order on the Pier Homes at HarborView - but only after neighborhood activists repeatedly pointed out that structures being built on the roofs that were supposed to house only mechanical equipment were being advertised as penthouses with wet bars.
Swirnow ignored the stop-work order and, to the community's disgust, the city ultimately decided the developer could not only keep the built penthouses, but also keep constructing new ones after paying a $10,000 fine.
With that history, HarborView's latest request is not sitting well with neighborhood activists or the politicians who represent South Baltimore.
A hearing Thursday before the council's urban affairs committee turned ugly when opponents to HarborView's plan discovered that while they were meeting with top officials to discuss a compromise idea, city planners were signing the deal with the developer.
"I've never been more embarrassed about my city government than sitting here listening to this," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr. "The planning department sits down with them in the backroom and enters into an agreement - I think that's outrageous."
Deputy Mayor Andy Frank, who along with Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake met with residents before the hearing to talk about the compromise concept, apologized later for the mix-up, saying "the intentions were good, the execution was poor."
What Frank wanted to do was get HarborView to agree to preserve about 30,000 square feet of open space at a different spot on Key Highway in exchange for permission to build the two additional towers.
"We were attempting to exact a concession that was hard-fought," Frank said. "I know the community will dismiss it as an insufficient amount. And we can debate that."
Community leaders scoffed at the deal almost immediately, saying the bulk of the preservation area is a leg of Webster Street, which is already public property.
"It's a shell game," says Federal Hill activist Jim Keat, who opposes HarborView's plan. "It's sleight of hand."
Meanwhile, the owner of the property right next to where the southernmost tower would be complains that it would not be fair to allow HarborView to build to 290 feet if he is limited to a fraction of that.
"There's a fundamental inequity in the city's planning process," said Al Barry, who represents Obrecht Commercial Real Estate. "If I were paranoid, I'd think there was collusion between the city and HarborView so that they could buy [the land] for a lesser value than it's worth."
Wise says he doesn't understand how there could be such opposition to buildings that would enhance the city's skyline and tax base.
He shows off photo after photo of the HarborView community - pointing in particular to the lush landscaping and water features that embellish the property.
When the community complains that they can't enjoy those things because HarborView feels like a gated community thanks to intimidating no-trespassing signs, Wise tells them they're always welcome and that the new buildings will be "even more welcoming."