Cordish project plan shifts

The Baltimore Sun

Plans for a prominent site on the eastern edge of downtown, in the heart of the city's entertainment district, have substantively shrunk since they were announced two years ago, according to Baltimore's economic development agency.

Developer David Cordish intends to build only half as much as he formerly envisioned on land once home to a helium balloon ride that closed after a harrowing incident in 2004.

Cordish had promised Baltimore Development Corp. that at the foot of a 250-unit high-rise of condominiums and apartments, he would build a Lucky Strike Lanes, an upscale bowling "lounge" - part of a network with 16 locations nationwide including Washington.

But yesterday BDC officials were trying to decide which of two much smaller alternative proposals they preferred. One includes 100 apartments and retail space a fraction the size of the bowling alley. Another maintains the same retail space and substitutes a 100-room hotel. Both options include parking garages for about 100 cars.

Softer real estate conditions prompted the changes, BDC officials said.

"It's half the size of what was proposed - due to changes in the market," said BDC board member Deborah Hunt Devan.

City development officials had high hopes that the half-acre balloon site - two blocks from the Inner Harbor and next door to both the Port Discovery children's museum and Cordish's sprawling assortment of nightlife options known as Power Plant Live - would lure an addition to Baltimore's stable of attractions.

They also hoped that with the location atop the Market Place/Shot Tower Metro station, the project would turn into a great opportunity to bring people downtown who weren't dependent on cars.

Reached by e-mail yesterday, Cordish, who said he was out of town, took issue with BDC board members' saying he had scaled back the project.

"Nothing has been scaled back," he wrote. "What, in fact, happens in every project we have done in Baltimore and across the country is build far more then the minimum."

Cordish did not respond when The Sun asked him to elaborate.

BDC did not settle yesterday on either of Cordish's alternate plans. BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie said that he would like to see Cordish bolster the proposals, particularly for such an important location.

"We - and Cordish - will work together toward more density on this important gateway-to-downtown site," Brodie said.

At the end of 2005, when BDC initially approved the $70 million deal, it called for 125 condominiums, 125 apartments, 50,000 square feet of retail space and 400 parking spots. Cordish said he wanted to have it open by the end of 2007.

At the time, Baltimore was reveling in a wave of condo proposals. The market has cooled, and other developers in town have announced they are reining-in projects. In Charles Village, for instance, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse plans to construct market-rate apartments in the Olmsted building project instead of luxury condos.

Development on the downtown site would revive an area that has lain dormant since July 17, 2004, when 16 passengers and a crew member were stranded in the Port Discovery HiFlyer balloon for nearly two hours as a violent storm blew through the area.

With the balloon 200 feet in the air, 50- to 60-mph wind gusts surprised the ride's operators, who were unable to lower the balloon. As the wind nearly blew the balloon onto President Street and sent it crashing into the air-conditioning shed atop city police headquarters next door, passengers in the steel gondola were tossed about.

The BDC did not renew the balloon operator's contract after the incident. But the attraction, which opened in 2001, never became the tourist magnet that city officials had hoped it would be.

Being above an underground rail line complicates development options for the site. The location rules out an underground parking garage, and even what goes on top would likely require especially complicated engineering.

Also, builders would have to take care that a tower would not interfere with police helicopters heading for the rooftop landing pad at the department's downtown headquarters nearby.

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