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HarborView tower plan is blocked

The Baltimore Sun

To the relief of many in South Baltimore, Mayor Sheila Dixon has blocked a plan to build two more waterfront towers at HarborView.

Faced with intense community opposition, the mayor pushed HarborView's developer, Richard A. Swirnow, to rescind his request to the City Council that would have enabled him to keep building even though he technically had exhausted his construction options.

"I have decided to withdraw [the bill] and instruct the Planning Department and Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods to bring all parties together to find common ground," Dixon wrote in a letter to a community leader who opposes the proposal.

"Our goal should be an unambiguous, enforceable and market driven plan that produces high quality mixed-use development that strengthens the historic ties between South Baltimore and the waterfront," she wrote. "To accomplish this vision, we must balance the development interests with ample provision for public open space, view, access corridors and neighborhood oriented retail."

Dixon's move follows an acrimonious hearing on the bill in June before a City Council committee. Community leaders from a number of neighborhoods condemned HarborView's $100 million proposal and accused Swirnow of trying to change the rules of the game.

To build two new 26-story condominium towers, Swirnow needs the council to let him cover more of the lot's surface and build towers closer together than his original 1980s urban renewal plan allows.

Under 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.

Frank Wise, HarborView's vice president, said yesterday that Swirnow is willing to reconsider the project.

"It's a disappointing state of affairs but one which we recognize needs to be worked through with everyone involved," Wise said. "I don't think it's in anyone's interest ... not to see prime waterfront sites developed."

Extreme aversion

In the midst of a Democratic primary this summer, Dixon has been concerned about the community's extreme aversion to this project and its skepticism about the city's interactions with HarborView.

To calm tensions, she invited neighborhood leaders to a chat after the June council hearing, during which community leaders discovered that while they were meeting with Dixon's staff to bounce around a compromise idea, city planners were actually signing the deal with HarborView.

At the chat, Dixon announced to residents that the city would not sell its Fire Department's repair facility on Key Highway to developers. The mayor reiterated this pledge in her letter detailing the bill's withdrawal, saying she wants the city to have an "insurance policy of sorts" - so unless other parks are built along the nearby waterfront, she'll reserve the site, which is about as big as a city block, as open space.

Paul Robinson, the founder of Friends of Federal Hill Park, praised Dixon yesterday for "reaching out in such a constructive manner." He said he appreciated her continued commitment to provide open space and her listening to people's concerns.

"She appears to have ... heard our arguments," he said.

No more building

Robinson insists, however, that the community is not willing to consider any proposal that would allow Swirnow to build more on the site than he's now entitled to.

"The majority of our residents are absolutely opposed to any further construction on the HarborView site," he said. "Ultimately we can sit down and discuss ideas that involve no further construction on the HarborView site."

City Councilman Edward L. Reisinger, who sides with his constituents opposed to the plan, called the death of the legislation a victory for the community.

Though the bill appeared to be stalled in the council's urban affairs committee since the June hearing, Reisinger said he was prepared to have it voted down on the floor if it came to that.

"If he wants to do anything, he's going to have to start over again and work with community," Reisinger said of Swirnow.

Dixon's spokesman Anthony McCarthy said that although the community and HarborView "obviously are far apart right now," the mayor believes she can help them reach an agreement on the site's future.

"We need to back up in this process," McCarthy said. "[The mayor] believes that with upfront, honest dialogue on the issues, there is always room for movement. But everyone has to be willing to hear each other."

Reisinger isn't so sure that philosophy will work in this case.

"When pigs fly," he said. "That's when Swirnow and the community will find common ground."

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