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City's sale of pier up for vote today

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore is preparing to sell Fells Point's landmark Recreation Pier for up to $2 million, advancing a plan to convert the historic structure into a trendy hotel.

Terms of the agreement with the developer, J. Joseph Clarke, will come before the Board of Estimates for approval today - three years after the city selected a team to build at the site, which gained national fame by standing in as a police station on the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street.

"It is an immense relief," Clarke said of the expected decision to move forward on the project, which residents and business owners have been anticipating for years. "We started working on this quite a long time ago."

Deterioration of the pier, which was built in 1914, is largely responsible for delay to the $45 million project. Clarke estimates it could cost as much as $9 million to repair the pier. The city first offered the site to private developers, in part, because it did not have the money to fix the structure.

Under the proposed agreement, Clarke and partner H&S; Properties Development - which is owned by John Paterakis Sr. - will pay the city a $350,000, nonrefundable deposit to purchase the property. The remaining $1.65 million will be paid after the development is complete.

However, the $1.65 million balance could be reduced, or entirely eliminated, if the cost to rebuild the pier exceeds $6.9 million - which Clarke said is likely to happen. The property has been appraised at $8.9 million, according to Board of Estimates documents.

Officials with the Department of Housing and Community Development noted that the project is not receiving city money or tax breaks.

"Obviously, the pier is a very historic structure, and yet it was at tremendous risk with serious structural deficiencies," said Paul T. Graziano, the city's housing commissioner. "For years we've been struggling with the challenge of how do we get this pier renovated without incurring significant public dollars."

Once complete, the Aloft hotel - which is a less expensive version of the W Hotel brand - will have 130 rooms that will cost between $200 and $250 a night, Clarke said.

The developers of the property, at 1715 Thames St., received state and federal tax credits.

Alicia Horn, a member of the Fells Point Community Organization and a resident and business owner in the neighborhood for 26 years, said many residents initially favored another proposal that would have given the community more access to the building. Now that the city has selected the hotel, she said, people want to see it built as quickly as possible.

"We're waiting for something to happen," Horn said. "Getting the Rec Pier going would be a very big help to the neighborhood."

Clarke had originally planned to work with New Orleans-based HRI Properties, but the firm backed out after Hurricane Katrina. Baltimore-based Focus Development was the second partner on the project, but Clarke announced in 2006 that he had joined with H&S; Properties to form a new team, Recreation Pier Developers LLC.

The city built Recreation Pier in 1914 to store cargo. Later, the building also became a community center. The site was adapted into a television studio for the Baltimore-based television series Homicide: Life on the Street and it has been closed to the public ever since.

About half of the 500-foot-long pier - the half closest to shore - was built on firm land and is in good shape, Clarke said. The other half, however, has suffered from years of waves and currents and has become structurally unsound. Many of the pier's 405 pilings have worn thin, he said.

As part of the project, crews will raise the pier about 4 feet to avoid flooding. During Tropical Storm Isabel in 2003, water rose about three feet over the pier, Clarke said.

"Everybody can see there are parts of the pier that are deteriorating, and that's troublesome to people who have agreed to be Fells Point residents," said Clarke, who is married to City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "We're going to fix it up so they can be proud of it."

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